FCC Targets “Robocalls” By Enabling Voice Providers to Block Inherently Suspect Phone Numbers

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted rules aimed at reducing the incidence of “robocalls” by allowing voice service providers to block, before they reach consumers, calls that originate from phone numbers that strongly suggest the call is illicit. Such autodialed, usually prerecorded calls, the FCC says, often involve scams that seek to exploit consumers and/or spoof caller ID to mask the call’s origination. To combat those efforts, the amended rules allow service providers to block the calls despite FCC call-completion duties that otherwise may apply. All blocking under the rules will be voluntary by the provider—no calls are required to be blocked—and will not require prior consumer consent, as the FCC presumes calls bearing bogus caller ID or other hallmarks of invalid origination are unwanted.

The rules allow voice service providers to engage in voluntary blocking of calls with caller ID information suggesting a likelihood that the calls were not lawfully originated, where:

  • The rightful subscriber to a phone number asks for it to be placed on a “do not originate” list indicating calls should not be placed from that number, and thus should be blocked. Such “DNO” requests are allowed so long as the number is used only for inbound calls and the subscriber in designating it DNO specifically asks for calls from it to be blocked.
  • The call purports to be from an originating number that simply cannot be valid, such as those with caller ID that shows area codes that do not exist, or with the wrong number of digits, or exhibiting other numbering oddities.
  • The call purports to be from a number that has yet to be allocated to any service provider.
  • The call purports to be from a number allocated to a service provider but yet to be assigned to any valid subscriber.

The Report and Order adopting the rules makes clear that service providers may rely on caller ID to determine the purported originating number without regard to whether a call in fact originated from that number. However, for calls that may be blocked because they are from allocated but unassigned numbers (the last bullet above), the entity blocking the call must be the service provider to whom the number is allocated, or must obtain verification from the provider who is, in fact, the allocatee (require­ments the FCC found necessary because, it recognized, there is presently no technical measure allowing providers to accurately and promptly identify other carriers’ allocated-but-unassigned numbers). The FCC also specifies that the rules do not apply to text messaging.

The FCC encourages—but does not require—providers opting to block calls to allow means for legitimate callers whose numbers are blocked to contact the provider to remedy the problem. In this vein, the Report and Order appends a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in which the FCC seeks comment on whether/how to pursue potential mechanisms to ensure calls allowed to be blocked under the new rules, and erroneously prevented from completing, can be unblocked as soon as possible, without undue harm to callers or consumers. The Commission also seeks comment on ways to measure the effectiveness of robocall blocking (by FCC allowance and/or industry efforts), and directs its Government and Consumer Affairs Bureau, in coordination with the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, to report on the state of U.S. robocalling within a year.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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