Can phone companies do more to block robocalls?

The Associated PressJeri Vargas takes a phone call at her mother’s home in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles.

Damian Dovarganes

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tired of those annoying, sometimes costly, robocalls favored by scammers?

The Federal Communications Commission is being asked to consider whether more can be done to block the automated phone calls, but the options appear to be limited.

The convergence of Internet and phone lines has made it easier to blast out hundreds of thousands of calls in a matter of minutes to see who takes the bait. The question of whether these calls can be blocked has never been more pressing than around tax season, when many pretend to come from the IRS.

The phone companies say they worry that automatic call-blocking might run afoul of laws requiring them to connect phone calls and have asked the FCC to clarify that it doesn’t. Many carriers offer call-blocking services to consumers, sometimes for a fee. But they also don’t want regulators to create any hard-and-fast rules, which they say could be difficult to implement.

Consumer groups counter that the phone companies are dragging their feet for no good reason and that, once given the green light from the FCC, could block most robocalls if they wanted.

“It is time for AT&T to provide free, effective solutions to this problem immediately, so that unwanted robocalls are stopped before they reach us,” wrote Tim Marvin with Consumers Union in a recent letter to AT&T. The group, which has organized an online petition at EndRobocalls.com, sent similar letters to Verizon and Century Link.

AT&T says it’s not as easy as it sounds. Robocallers can easily “spoof” their identity and location by pretending to be from a legitimate source or by altering the caller ID. So blocking robocalls is “a bit like a game of Whac-A-Mole: just as numbers are identified for blocking, the robocaller spoofs another number,” the company said in an FCC filing.

The U.S. passed the widely popular “Do Not Call” legislation in 2003. Commercial telemarketers are not allowed to call you if you’ve put your number in the registry unless they have “an established business relationship” with you. But unsolicited phone calls remain a top consumer complaint. The Federal Trade Commission, which goes after businesses for deceptive business practices, say it receives on average of 150,000 complaints a month on robocalls and has filed more than 100 lawsuits against violators of the Do Not Call rules.

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