Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, launched a campaign Wednesday asking the largest telephone companies to offer customers free tools to block robocalls.
Consumers Union has long pushed phone carriers to take action against robocalls. But now the organization is specifically appealing to Verizon, Century Link and AT&T to offer customers the choice to use call-blocking technologies to stop robocalls. "Americans are sick and tired of robocallers that invade their homes and try to rip them off with predatory scams," said Christina Tetreault, staff attorney for Consumers Union. "Its time for phone companies to stop dragging their feet and empower consumers to put an end to unwanted robocalls."
Robocalls are pre-recorded or live phone calls made using a computerized auto-dialer. While the debt collection industry will closely watch how the campaign plays out, the push is to block illegal robocalling
Technology is available to stop robocalls before they reach a consumers landline, but few people have access to the tools because the phone companies have resisted making them widely available. Some of these technologies work by intercepting telemarketing calls and providing consumers with the choice to send callers to voicemail, answer or block a call, hang up or identify certain callers or categories of callers to be blocked in the future. Other technologies use a whitelist to develop a trusted list of numbers that go through and ask other callers to say their names before the consumers phone rings. Consumers in countries where these technologies are available have reported a significant drop in unwanted calls.Unlike the legitimate debt collection industry, many scammers use robocalling to reach a large number of unsuspecting people. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received 3 million complaints from the public about unwanted robocalls, many from scammers or illegitimate companies that flagrantly violate the law. Telephone scammers often target the elderly and other vulnerable consumers, resulting in an estimated $350 million in financial losses in 2011, according to the FTC. Americans have registered more than 217 million phone numbers on the FTC's "Do Not Call list.
Fraudulent schemes have include the "IRS scam," such as a recent report in North Carolina in which the caller claims to be from the Internal Revenue Service and demands money for unpaid taxes. The IRS reports that about 1,100 consumers have fallen victim to this crime, losing some $5 million.
Other scams include "Rachel from Cardholder Services," a recorded message that promises to lower your credit card interest rates, the Microsoft computer scam, and phony medical alert offers.
In recent years, US Telecom, the trade association representing phone carriers, has claimed that they do not have the legal authority to block all robocalls. However, some phone carriers have conceded that the law does not prohibit them from blocking robocalls if a consumer requests that they do so.
Consumers Union in January filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission detailing how current law allows phone companies to give consumers the choice to stop robocalls with call-blocking technologies, a position that is shared by the FTC. Consumers Unions January filing included more than 50,000 comments gathered from consumers urging the FCC to make that clear.
"Weve heard from thousands of consumers across the country frustrated by the daily onslaught of robocalls that interrupt their lives and target them with fraudulent scams," said Tetreault. "Phone companies need to step up and provide their customers with relief. Consumers should be given the option of using call-blocking technologies to end unwanted robocalls."