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Flurry of FCC Actions Addresses Robocalls, Consumer Fraud, and More

A remarkably busy FCC has announced a number of actions the commission is taking  to address carrier slamming and cramming, robocalls, call authentication and more.


Here are highlights from recent FCC actions and statements:

FCC PROPOSES RULES TO PROTECT CONSUMERS FROM  ‘SLAMMING’ AND ‘CRAMMING’

 The Federal Communications Commission has begun a rulemaking process to prevent consumers from being switched to a different phone provider without their permission or having unauthorized charges added to their bills – activities known respectively as “slamming” and “cramming.”

The FCC’s proposed rules would prohibit carriers from misrepresenting themselves when telemarketing to consumers and placing unauthorized charges on their phone bills.  Unscrupulous carriers often use these scams against vulnerable populations – such as the elderly, recent immigrants, small businesses, and non-English speakers.

While current Commission rules provide some protection against unauthorized charges and carrier switches, the Commission is considering new ways to give consumers more control of their accounts.  Some dishonest carriers have abused the current system to defraud consumers.  The Commission is considering requiring that a phone carrier check directly with the consumer before switching an account to another carrier, rather than relying on that second carrier’s request for that change.  Likewise, the Commission is considering preventing third-party charges from being added to a consumer’s phone bill unless the consumer expressly agrees to the charges.

Some of the bad actors who perpetrate slamming and cramming have been known to misrepresent who they are or fabricate the consumer’s verification of a switch without actually contacting the consumer.  Others ask consumers to answer questions on an unrelated call and then splice the consumer’s answers into the alleged verification. Still others do not even bother to submit a carrier change but simply cram charges on the consumer’s telephone bill for services that were never authorized.  The FCC’s proposed rule changes would seek to address these troubling trends.

The FCC has jurisdiction to enforce laws against “slamming” and “cramming” and has taken numerous actions over the years to fine companies for such behavior.  Today’s proposed rulemaking would help prevent such violations from taking place in the first place while providing more clarity on the rules of the road for those carriers committed to best practices for their customers.

FCC FINES ROBOCALLING PLATFORM ALMOST $3 MILLION FOR ILLEGAL CALLS 

The Federal Communications Commission today issued a $2.88 million fine against a New Mexico-based company, Dialing Services, for facilitating unlawful robocalls.  Robocallers used Dialing Services’ calling technology platform to make millions of illegal robocalls to mobile phones without express prior consent from consumers. 

In 2013, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau formally warned Dialing Services that it could be held liable for robocalls its customers were making in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.  The TCPA prohibits autodialed phone calls, robocalls, or texts to wireless phones in most instances unless the caller has the prior express consent of the called party.  Following the citation, the Bureau investigated and determined that Dialing Services’ platform was still being used to make unlawful robocalls.  The fine reflects the Commission’s determination that Dialing Services was involved in making 180 unlawful robocalls after being warned to stop. 

The Commission has made clear that a third party, such as a platform provider, may be liable under the TCPA if the platform provider is so involved in the placement of a call that it essentially made the call.  The Commission determined that Dialing Services played a significant role in the illegal robocalls, and thus should be held liable for violating the TCPA.  For example, Dialing Services’ platform automatically blocks the originating telephone number and enables caller ID spoofing.

FCC SEEKS RELIABLE CALL AUTHENTICATION SYSTEM

In its latest step to combat annoying and malicious robocalls, the Federal Communications Commission is seeking public comment on standards that will help differentiate legitimate phone calls from those that attempt to trick consumers through caller ID spoofing.

The Commission will explore ways to set up a reliable system to verify that a phone call is really coming from the phone number that it claims to be.  Many malicious robocallers hide their true originating phone number in order to evade call-blocking or filtering tools and trick consumers about a call’s true source.  A reliable authentication system would help confront this behavior and strengthen call-blocking.  Some carriers and third-party developers today offer consumers various services to block or filter unwanted calls.  Improved call authentication would provide another tool to identify spoofing and improve the effectiveness of these services.

Unwanted robocalls and telemarketing calls are the number one consumer complaint received by the Commission each year, totaling around 200,000 each year – or around 60 percent of the total consumer complaints.  Today’s action, formally a Notice of Inquiry, asks important legal, policy and technological questions about call authentication frameworks.  The Commission seeks public comment on these questions.  Following this public comment period, the Commission may move forward on further actions such as rulemakings.

Today’s phone networks involve many more providers and systems than when they were designed and built.  These changes have benefits for consumers but also create new challenges.  One challenge is how carriers and their customers can verify that a call came from the caller it claims to be when that call has passed through various carriers and technologically diverse networks,. 

A recent report from an industry-led robocall initiative included a request for the Commission to work with the private sector to accelerate adoption of network-wide standards to verify and authenticate caller ID for calls carried over Internet Protocol (IP) networks.  Adoption of universal standards could result in much-improved reliability of caller ID, allowing consumers to again trust the caller ID information they see when receiving calls. 

FCC TAKES ACTION TO ALLEVIATE ROBOCALLS TO REASSIGNED PHONE NUMBERS 

The Federal Communications Commission today took action to address the issue of robocalls to reassigned phone numbers in order to reduce unwanted robocalls that consumers receive and provide clarity for responsible callers.  The Commission is seeking public comment on the idea of creating a comprehensive resource of reassigned numbers that businesses and other robocallers, such as schools, can use to avoid accidentally calling number that are no longer used by the consumer that gave their consent to receive these calls.  

When a consumer gets a new phone number that was previously used by another consumer, businesses and other callers frequently do not learn of the reassignment right away.  Today there is no single comprehensive resource for an up-to-date list of numbers that have been reassigned.  Thus, callers may unwittingly continue to place calls without realizing the number has switched hands.  A business or other robocaller unknowingly calling a reassigned number can annoy the new consumer and deprive the previous consumer of an expected call. 

Today’s action, formally called a Notice of Inquiry, begins the process of receiving public comment on ideas to address problems related to reassigned numbers and robocalls.  The Commission is asking for input on whether voice service providers should report when a number has been reassigned and how that data might be managed and utilized appropriately.  This includes questions aimed at addressing privacy and security issues.  Following this public comment period, the Commission may move forward on further actions such as rulemakings.

Robocalls and telemarketing calls are consistently the top source of consumer complaints received by the FCC.  Creation of a comprehensive reassigned number resource for businesses and other robocallers could help prevent many unwanted calls that consumers currently receive. In addition, more clarity will help callers communicate more effectively with consumers who have asked for such calls.

Source: FCC media announcements



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