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"I keep getting calls on my line from Bridgett at cardholder services. I’ve asked them repeatedly to stop calling. Can you help me?" a consumer named Roger asked us the other day.

We get this same email in one form or another every day, all day. Very simply, consumers are being driven mad by endless calls to their wireline and wireless phones. The calls come from Rachel, Bridget, charities, politicians and political fund-raisers.

There is, of course, a Do Not Call list but it is ineffective against overseas callers and anyone who thinks that laws are written for everyone else. 

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler says he's heard just about enough and is proposing a new set of rules that would allow phone companies to be more aggressive in blocking unwanted calls. The proposal will be voted on at the FCC's June 18 meeting.

"Last year alone, we received more than 215,000 complaints related to unwanted and intrusive calls and texts. The filer of one complaint detailed receiving 4,700 unwanted texts over a 6-month period," Wheeler said in a blog posting. "We've also seen reports of 27,809 unsolicited text messages over 17 months to one reassigned number, despite requests to stop the texts."

Just say "stop"

If approved, the new rules would:

Empower Consumers to Say ‘Stop’ – Consumers would have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time. (Applies to wireless and landline home service.)

Give Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology – Carriers could offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers. It would give the go-ahead for carriers to implement market-based solutions that consumers could use to stop unwanted robocalls. (Applies to wireless and landline home service.)

Make Clear Reassigned Numbers Aren’t Loopholes – Consumers who inherit a phone number would not be subject to a barrage of unwanted robocalls to which a previous subscriber of the number consented. If a phone number has been reassigned, callers must stop calling the number after one call. (Applies to wireless and landline home service.)

Define an Autodialer – An “autodialer” is any technology with the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers. The rulings would ensure robocallers cannot skirt consumer consent requirements through changes in calling technology design or by calling from a list of numbers. (Applies to wireless.)

Allow Very Limited and Specific Exceptions for Urgent Circumstances – Free calls or texts to, for example, alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills would be allowed. The proposal is very clear about what such messages can be and what they cannot be (i.e., no marketing or debt collection). In addition, consumers would have the ability to opt out of even these permitted calls and texts. (Applies to wireless.)

Early warning signs

Tom Wheeler (Photo credit: FCC)

Wheeler has tackled a lot of issues in his brief term as FCC chair, everything from mega mergers to net neutrality. But junk phone calls may be the most contentious issue yet. It's something everyone is mad about. Even companies that make millions of calls per year have complained that existing rules are confusing and often contradictory.

Initial comments on Wheeler's blog are an early warning sign that not everyone is on board with his proposal. 

"It appears that the FCC is seeking to seize power from the FTC in this area (just as it has attempted to do with cybersecurity, via its illegal "open Internet" order) without the knowledge, funds, or experience to follow through. It has no database; it has no expertise; it has no infrastructure for this task," said a commenter identified as Brett Glass. "Perhaps it would be best, as other commenters have said, for the FCC to concentrate on eliminating Caller ID forgery while the FTC continues to work on enforcement (which is advantageous because it can also go after junk callers for fraud and deceptive advertising)."

"So, will the telcos be required to offer the robocall-blocking tools at no cost? It will be truly annoying if I must pay for blocking when the robocallers have wasted (stolen) so much of my time," said Thomas O'Brien.

Hopeless bunglers

Even calls that are at least semi-legitimate are often so bureaucratically automated that they do nothing but waste everyone's time, like the call Christine of Roslindale, Mass., complained about last year. 

"I received a text message on my cell phone to call FIA Card services at 816-564-8172 by 11 p.m. tonight regarding a servicing matter. This sounded urgent. I have no idea who FIA Card services is. So, I called the number and the prompt asked me if I want an account balance. Then asked me if I wanted to make a payment. Then asked me if I wanted to speak with a representative. I said representative. A gentleman answered and asked me what I was calling for. I said because your company sent me an urgent text to call.

"He said he needed the telephone number associated with the account. I said what account. He said the one I am calling about. I said I have no idea what I am calling about. I received text I had to respond to. He said he needed a phone number. I decided to give him the text number my cell number, that I received the text on. He next asked me if I was 'Joe' which is my dad and brother's name. I said no. I said this could be my dad who is elderly. He said he could not give me any more information. I asked what type of matter this was. He said he could not give me any information. I said then "why are you texting me and incurring charges for me." He said because they have my number. I said 'I never heard of FIA.' I gave up. I am just blocking them. What a cost ineffective company."

In fact, the text to Christine's phone may have been illegal under existing FCC rules. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (pdf) requires prior consent for autodialed and prerecorded calls and texts to wireless phones, whether they are telemarketing or informational calls. This includes calls related to debt collection.


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