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The FCC allows AT&T, Verizon and other carriers to block more suspected robocalls

The Federal Communications Commission, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, approved new rules Thursday that could make it easier for U.S. telecom giants to block suspected spam calls. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved new rules that could make it easier for AT&T, Verizon and other telecom giants to block suspected spam calls on behalf of their subscribers, a move meant to crack down on the ever-worsening scourge a month after robocallers rang Americans’ phones nearly 5 billion times.

Under the order, telecom carriers have a legal greenlight to enroll consumers in their call-blocking services by default, as opposed to waiting for customers to sign up for such tools on their own. The change would “make it easier for consumers” to get robocall relief, said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, noting that many people often are unaware such technology exists.

“There is one thing in our country that unites Republicans and Democrats,” Pai said. “They are sick and tired of being bothered by unwanted robocalls.”

Ever get a phone call from a number that looks suspiciously like your own? This video explains them, and what you should do about them. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Pai’s proposal cleared the commission with bipartisan support, but not without reservations from Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who expressed concern that the agency did not require AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to offer free call-blocking services. The omission could lead to higher prices on subscribers’ monthly wireless bills, she warned.

“I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop,” Rosenworcel said. “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.”

The FCC’s vote Thursday comes amid heightened pressure — particularly from the public — for the U.S. government and the nation’s top telecom carriers to crack down on billions of unwanted spam calls, many of which are attempts to trick recipients into surrendering their personal information. Last year, the agency received more than 232,000 complaints from consumers frustrated with spam calls, FCC officials said.

The FCC also permitted AT&T, Verizon and other carriers to create tools that might allow consumers to block calls coming from anyone other than the contacts already stored in their address books.

Commissioners advanced debate on an additional order that would shield telecom giants from legal liability if they erroneously block calls they cannot authenticate as legitimate.

In doing so, however, the FCC stopped short of a broader rewrite of the nation’s anti-robocall rules, an overhaul consumer groups have urged the agency and Congress to consider. Organizations such as the National Consumer Law Center and the Consumers Union told the telecom agency in February that they welcomed the FCC’s recent work but fretted that it was only a “stopgap measure that will do little to address the larger problem.”

Pai’s proposal triggered a groundswell of industry lobbying, particularly on the part of financial institutions, debt collectors and hospitals. They met in May with the FCC chairman’s top aides to express concern that the new call-blocking rules could result “in the erroneous blocking of lawful, and often urgent, calls affecting consumer health, safety, and financial well-being,” according to agency records. That includes local utility outages, health-care reminders and vehicle recall notices, which they said might be labeled as spam.

The nation’s top four carriers have said little about how they plan to proceed now that the FCC has opened the door for them to offer call-blocking tools by default. The FCC’s recent efforts on call blocking are not mandatory, meaning telecom giants could choose not to change their practices. Pai and his peers said they did not expect any new offerings to result in higher prices for consumers, given the savings telecom giants might realize as a result of reducing robocall traffic on their networks.

“Now it is time for telecom companies to take the baton,” Pai said.

Ahead of the vote, AT&T said it would review the FCC’s order but did not comment further on whether it would change its practices or whether it would charge consumers for any new call-blocking tools it offers. One of its tools, a free app known as Call Protect, requires users to download and enable it.

Verizon said it intends “to use this new authority that the FCC is giving us to more effectively protect our customers from robocalls,” pointing out that one of its robocall-blocking services, called Call Filter, is already available free to subscribers.

T-Mobile says it offers two services free — Scam ID, a default-on tool that alerts users to suspected fraudulent calls, and Scam Block, a default-off tool that prevents users from receiving them. It did not offer further comment on the FCC’s plans.

Sprint, which offers a premium call-blocking service for a monthly fee, said it is “optimistic the chairman’s most recent proposed changes will allow us to take more aggressive action in addressing this issue.”

It did not comment further on future pricing or availability.