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In our opinion: New FCC rules for robocalls should make life a little quieter

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The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday issued a new rule that allows phone companies to making blocking robocalls the default.
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From now on, your telephone provider has the power to block all robocalls to your number unless you specifically tell it otherwise. That’s a good thing, and it will go a long way toward ridding the nation of the scourge of calls that, in many cases, are tied to scams.

We urge all providers to take advantage of this new power. More importantly, we urge them to do so without charging their customers extra for the privilege.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday issued a new rule that allows phone companies to provide this service. Until now, some companies would offer to block the calls only if customers opted in, and often for a price. The new ruling allows them to make this the default.

The difference is substantial, and if companies take advantage of it, the days of ubiquitous, irritating and misleading robocalls may be numbered.

FCC officials say robocalls are the No. 1 consumer complaint they receive. They number in the billions each month. An estimated 187 billion of them were made to Utahns last year. Often, the callers spoof their location, tricking caller ID services into thinking they are located domestically, when in reality they are calling from a different country.

Blocking these calls is not without risk. Some robocalls are legitimate, such as ones informing people about unusual credit card transactions, delinquent payments or doctor’s appointments. Others may be considered in a gray area, such as calls on behalf of political candidates or issues.

At a teleconference press briefing Friday, senior officials said the FCC is urging companies to use analytics similar to those used to distinguish spam emails from legitimate ones when deciding which calls to allow. They could begin with ones that can be verified to originate with a legitimate number.

The FCC wants phone companies to adopt a caller authentication service known as SHAKEN/STIR by the end of the year. Doing so could provide them with protection against any litigation that might result from legitimate calls being blocked.

Also, officials said carriers may want to allow customers to use their own contact lists to form a “white list,” allowing calls only from people they recognize.

We suspect this new ruling will result in some problems that may have to be solved over time. Chief among these concerns costs. The FCC is not mandating that phone companies screen robocalls at no extra cost to customers — yet. But it clearly expects companies to do this.

A senior official told reporters it may be difficult to determine whether this is happening because providers often bundle a group of services together under a single fee. But the FCC believes carriers will save enough money — fielding complaints about robocalls costs an estimated $10 per instance — that the default opt-out measure will pay for itself.

In any event, an official said, the FCC will monitor how companies comply with this ruling, and whether they charge customers, before determining whether to begin mandating that the opt-out service be provided for free.

Regardless of potential problems, this is an important first step toward providing relief to consumers, whether they still rely on landlines or use cell phones exclusively. It is a positive response to the urgings of 42 states, including Utah, that Washington take this problem seriously.

We hope it means an eventual end to robocalls all together.