FCC Eases Rules to Allow Preemptive Blocking of Spam Robocalls

Agency Gives New Tools to Phone Carriers Battling Crooked Call Centers

What to Know

  • FCC commissioners voted to allow phone carriers to preemptively block suspected spam robocalls by default for customers
  • The FCC is working with phone companies to roll out new anti-spam call technology by the end of this year
  • An Obama-appointed FCC Commissioner warns phone customers may still have to pay extra for spam call blocking

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission fired another shot Thursday in its long war with the crooked call centers behind billions of spam robocalls.

Meeting in Washington, the FCC Board of Commissioners voted to allow phone companies to block suspected spam calls by default. Previously, phone users had to sign up or opt-in for call blocking services. With Thursday's ruling, companies can automatically provide robocall blocking to all customers, and let them opt-out if desired.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said efforts to stymie spam calls are a top priority for the agency.

"If there’s one thing in our country today that unites Republicans and Democrats; liberals and conservatives; socialists and libertarians; vegetarians and carnivores; Ohio State and Michigan fans; it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls," Pai said. "My message to the American people today is simple: we hear you, and we are on your side."

Pai said consumers could start to see a difference in the coming months.

"Major carriers will get this done by the end of this year," Pai said. "I believe that a voluntary, industry-led process, is most likely to achieve this goal."

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democrats on the FCC, said the ruling didn't go far enough.

"There is nothing in our decision today that prevents carriers from charging consumers for this blocking technology to stop robocalls," Rosenworcel said in a written statement. "I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop. I do not think that this agency should pat itself on the back for its efforts to reduce robocalls and then tell consumers to pay up."

Spam robocalls have exploded in the last few years. Irvine-based YouMail, a call-blocking service provider, estimates San Francisco Bay Area residents received more than 87 million robocalls last month alone, ranking as ninth-most in the nation.

YouMail reports Americans' phones got about 4.7 billion robocalls in May, averaging 14.4 calls per person, or roughly 1,800 per second. Of those, about 43 percent were attempting fraud, with YouMail tracking spikes in Social Security and student loan scams.