Just a “Start”: Robocall Strike Force Announces Phone Industry’s Incomplete Plan to Curb Robocalls - Consumers Union, FCC Commissioners Say Work is Not Done Yet

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Consumer Reports Finds Phone Companies’ Current Call-Blocking Offerings Fall Short.

Robocalls are a major source of frustration for consumers who are tired of being harassed by unwanted calls from scam artists and shady telemarketers.

A phone industry-led Robocall Strike Force today unveiled a plan touted by companies as a way to limit unwanted calls, which top the list of consumer complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.

During the meeting FCC Commissioners said the much-anticipated plan needs more work. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he would be asking individual companies for concrete deadlines and commitments, and would call the groups back together in six months for a progress report. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said there will be “no mission accomplished until the calls stop,” and Commissioner Ajit Pai indicated there was “much more work to do.”

Members of Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, were on hand for the meeting. The nonprofit organization said it agrees with the commissioners’ views, saying the plan seeks to phase in reforms in the next 20 months, but more action is needed to protect consumers now.

The Strike Force’s plan was unveiled on the same day that a Consumer Reports analysis found that many phone companies’ current call-blocking offerings fall short of what consumers need. While consumers using internet-based phone services have the best carrier-provided, call-blocking options, most phone companies don’t offer strong protection to their traditional landline and wireless customers.

“This latest plan is half a loaf, if that,” said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumers Union. “Robocalls are a major source of frustration for consumers who are tired of being harassed by unwanted calls from scam artists and shady telemarketers."

Mahoney continued, “These efforts are aimed at getting better solutions in the future, but consumers need relief now. The phone companies should take immediate action by offering their customers the best call-blocking protection currently available.”

Consumers Union launched its End Robocalls campaign last year calling on the phone companies to step up their efforts to block robocalls. Nearly 750,000 people have joined Consumers Union’s campaign urging AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon to offer their customers free robocall-blocking tools.

As part of the plan released today, the Strike Force launched a FCC-hosted website to educate consumers about robocalls and provide call-blocking tips and resources.

In letters sent to the major phone companies earlier this year, FCC Chairman Wheeler made clear that this work on improving call-blocking technologies “should not come at the expense of offering robocall solutions now.” At today’s meeting Wheeler walked through the goals, saying the plan was “a good start,” but it falls short of what is needed. The chairman made clear that “there is no hand-off” of this priority to trade groups and regulators, as individual companies must take action soon. Wheeler noted that companies have had successful trials to limit fraudulent calls from people posing as the Internal Revenue Service, but these kinds of trials should be expanded and become standard practices for the industry.

“The phone companies should get to work developing these new call-blocking technologies and let their customers know how soon they will be adopted," Mahoney said. "But consumers have waited long enough for action. It’s time for the phone companies to start delivering real solutions.”

The Consumer Reports analysis compared 21 different call-blocking services offered by phone companies based on six different criteria, including cost and the variety of features they provide. While Consumer Reports did not test the performance of these different services, an analysis of company offerings showed that Time Warner Cable has one of the best solutions available. The company does not charge for its call blocking services and gives its internet-based phone services (sometimes called VoIP) customers the option of turning on automated call-blocking by enabling Nomorobo, a third-party application that is expanding its service to smartphones.

While Nomorobo is compatible with the VoIP service provided by many carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, these customers are typically required to sign up for the service and activate it themselves. In contrast, Time Warner offers Nomorobo directly to its customers as part of a suite of call-blocking features.

RingPlus, a prepaid cell phone provider, offers a host of call-blocking options, using a system it developed and launched in September. RingPlus says its software developers needed less than one week to build its Universal Blacklist system, which suggests that it shouldn’t be too much of a lift for poorly-rated service providers to improve their call-blocking features.

The worst performers were the landline offerings of AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, and Fairpoint. AT&T and Verizon also ranked low for the call-blocking services they offer to wireless customers, as did Sprint and US Cellular.

A poll released by Consumer Reports in September found that customers of the top phone companies are deeply frustrated with robocalls and that a large number of respondents would switch their phone service to carriers that offered effective solutions to block unwanted calls.
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Consumers Union is the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. Consumers Union works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications.

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Michael McCauley

David Butler