First the bad news: You didn’t really win that free Caribbean cruise. In fact, the exuberant cruise line representative on the other end of the phone isn’t even a real person. Now for some good news: A mass consumer effort is afoot to do away with annoying robocalls once and for all, and this time it’s a crusade with traction.
The advocacy group Consumers Union recently launched a campaign to help customers put the brakes on unwanted automated phone calls. As part of the campaign, the group launched a petition, calling on major telecom companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to provide their customers with free, more effective and more accessible call-blocking features. Within a week, the petition had gained more than 200,000 signatures and more than 29,000 personal stories from customers on the receiving end of aggressive marketers, unscrupulous debt collectors and outright scammers.
Christina Tetreault, a staff attorney for Consumers Union, said even she was surprised by the speed with which the effort has caught fire. “We knew it was a hot-button issue, but the response has been overwhelming,” she said in a phone interview. “I think the message is clear. This is an issue whose time has come.”
You might ask yourself why, in 2015, we can’t seem to accomplish the basic task of blocking unwanted phone calls. While many call-blocking features do exist, particularly for smartphone users, Tetreault said they are woefully inadequate as an across-the-board solution. For instance, AT&T’s “Smart Limits” feature is unable to block inbound calls and messages received from anonymous or unknown callers.
“The challenge we see is that the technology is either available in some forms or it’s really up to these companies to create solutions to offer to consumers,” Tetreault said.
Landline users are particularly vulnerable to robocalls, and senior citizens who rely on landlines fall into the demographic upon which robocall-enabled scammers often prey. Meanwhile, the federal “Do Not Call” registry (now more than a decade old) has helped to curb legitimate telemarketing, but it has fallen short of its promise to give consumers peace and quiet. For one thing, Consumers Union says, many telemarketers operate overseas and aren’t really concerned about breaking U.S. laws.
What’s more, new technologies have made telemarketing easier, cheaper and more efficient. “Spoofing” features allow callers to change how their numbers show up on caller IDs, thereby fooling customers into thinking the call is legitimate, and predictive auto dialers maximize the chances of an outbound call landing at the right time.
Beating these predatory phone hounds means using even smarter solutions, but Tetreault said today’s phone companies have the resources to win the technological arms race. “These are tech companies,” she said. “They have armies of engineers, and people are clearly crying out for it.”
Consumers Union is the advocacy and policy arm of Consumer Reports. The group’s anti-robocalls campaign comes as the Federal Trade Commission is seeking to amend the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, weakening a key provision that requires businesses to obtain permission before calling or texting a consumer’s cell phone.
Some trade groups say robocalls are necessary in an automated world, and current rules restrict legitimate businesses from connecting with their customers. Lobbyists for the banking industry recently asked to be exempt from the rules so that they can notify their customers about fraud alerts and other pressing matters, USA Today reported.
But in a Jan. 26 letter to the Federal Communications Commission signed by more than 30 advocacy groups, including Consumers Union, advocates said the proposed changes would “gut essential privacy rights of cell phone users” and “open the floodgates” for wrong numbers.
In addition to demanding free blocking tools from phone companies, Consumers Union said consumers should urge the FCC to require carriers to do so.
Read the full petition here, or submit to your robot overlords and call it a day.