Phone companies can end robocalls easily but are choosing to keep you frustrated and annoyed

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Anti-robocall technology works, and Congress has mandated that phone companies use it.These companies have had plenty of time to comply with Congress’ mandate, but haven’t.It’s time for consumers to reclaim our phones and use them effectively.Teresa Murray is director of the Consumer Watchdog office at the US Public Interest Research Group.This is an opinion column.The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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You may have noticed you’re getting fewer unwanted robocalls about nonexistent car warranties or loans for businesses you don’t have.Or that more of the calls you are getting are marked as “potential spam.”

This shared national nightmare is finally easing up a bit.

Scam robocalls dropped by 29% from June 30 through August 31 , according to YouMail, a leading robocall filtering company.

The decline stems from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) more stringently enforcing a new law that requires all phone companies to install sophisticated caller ID technology aimed at blocking unwanted robocalls.Technically, the deadline for phone company compliance was June 30 , with more severe repercussions taking effect 90 days later, on September 28.

If by that date, any company hadn’t at least told the FCC what it was doing to fight robocalls, then other phone companies were prohibited from connecting phone calls with their networks.That would mean customers of those companies couldn’t make calls, although they could still receive them.

That clearly put fear in many phone companies’ wallets.Of the companies that had reported their compliance to the FCC as of October 11 , about one-fourth had installed the enhanced caller ID verification on their entire network; about one-fourth had installed it on part of their network; and about half hadn’t installed the required caller ID technology, but claimed that they were using their own methods to reduce robocalls.

Experts believe scam robocalls will continue to decline, but not necessarily go away.

Why? In part because the FCC gave an extension to companies with fewer than 100,000 customers or old-fashioned phone lines that don’t use cable or internet.They don’t have to comply with robocall-blocking caller ID until June 2023.

The attorneys general in all 50 states are concerned that robocall crime rings will gravitate to these phone companies that don’t have the caller ID technology.

You should be concerned, too.

To thwart those criminals, the FCC should move up the deadline for all phone companies to comply with the federal law to no later than June 30, 2022 , as proposed by all 50 state attorneys general.For legitimate businesses who say that’s too soon, that’s nonsense.The law was passed by Congress in 2019; and everyone knew it was coming years before that.

Robocalls started exploding about 15 years ago, when cell phone ownership among US adults hit 70 %.Regulators soon began chasing after con artists and telemarketers who were making billions of illegal robocalls each year.

The modern-day robocall became illegal on September 1, 2009, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) started prohibiting pre-recorded telemarketing calls to any consumers who hadn’t agreed to the calls in writing.

But you can only take action against those criminals that you can catch.As spoofed calls — when the dialer manipulates caller ID so that an incorrect number intentionally shows up — became more common, it became more difficult to track down those making calls, especially because many originate from overseas or a difficult-to-trace computer.

Over the years, regulators including the FCC and FTC started trying to crack down on robocalls not only by charging and shutting down illegal operations, but also going after the phone companies that allowed the calls.

By 2016, when we got at least 15 million scam robocalls and illegal telemarketing robocalls nationwide, more than 30 of the largest communications and technology companies — including AT&T, Apple, Comcast, Google and Verizon — agreed to work with the FCC.The goal: reduce robocalls, particularly the spoofed calls that tricked so many.The idea of caller ID verification standards came out of this group.

Now we’re here.

The importance of our phones can’t be overstated: They’re vital to our safety, our ability to stay in touch with loved ones, our ability to conduct business and more.Phone companies should be doing everything they can to protect their customers.If they won’t do it willingly, then regulators should force them to do it.

Until that happens, consumers can take a few simple steps to protect themselves.First, don’t provide or confirm personal information on a call you weren’t expecting, no matter what the caller ID says.Secondly, don’t pay any caller with gift cards or wire transfers.And finally, use multiple scam robocall filters on your cell phone.

Many of the best apps are free or cost a dollar or two a month.And some of the apps filter out robo-texts as well.

At the same time, if consumers are continuing to get an unacceptable number of robocalls on their cell phone or home phone (OK, even one is annoying,) then they should ask their phone company what it is doing to protect their privacy and respect their time.

Robocalls have been a real problem for about 15 years.Phone companies now have the ability to squash a large chunk of them.It’s past time for us to be able to reclaim our phones and use them the way they were intended.

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