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Phone companies, state attorneys general announce broad campaign to fight robocalls

(John Raoux/AP)

Twelve of the country’s largest telephone companies on Thursday pledged to implement new technology to spot and block robocalls, part of an agreement brokered between the industry and 51 attorneys general to combat the growing telecom scourge.

The new effort to be announced in Washington commits a wide array of companies in the absence of regulation to improving their defenses and aiding law enforcement in its investigations into illegal spam calls, which rang Americans’ phones an estimated 4.7 billion times in July alone.

Under the agreement, the 12 carriers have agreed to implement call-blocking technology, make anti-robocall tools available for free to consumers and deploy a new system that would label calls as real or spam. Known by its acronym, STIR/SHAKEN, the technology takes aim at a practice known as spoofing, where fraudsters mask their identities by using phone numbers that resemble those that they’re trying to contact in a bid to get victims to pick up and surrender their personal information.

Signing the pledge are larger mobile carriers, such as AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, which already have said they would implement such robocall protections and in some cases have started testing them around the country. Other carriers adopting the pledge include Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Charter, Consolidated, Frontier, U.S. Cellular and Windstream.

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There is no deadline by which these telecom companies must have new robocall protections in place. But Josh Stein, the attorney general of North Carolina and one of the architects of the agreement, told The Washington Post ahead of the announcement that the “expectation is they will all implement them as soon as practical.”

“Illegal robocalls harass and harm our people. There is no silver bullet to put a stop to them, but these anti-robocall principles represent a dramatic step forward,” he added in an interview.

In doing so, North Carolina, along with the rest of the country’s attorneys general, said their efforts would improve the government’s ability to find and penalize scammers that continue to dial consumers in record numbers. Robocalls represent one of the top complaints received by the federal government, adding to pressure on state and federal regulators to ramp up their work and put an end to the deluge.

This June, state and federal authorities announced 94 enforcement actions against illegal robocallers that allegedly placed an estimated 1 billion robocalls to consumers, a move they said signaled their heightened interest in combating such scams. Some of the calls sought to deceive people into paying fees or surrendering their personal information for fraudulent services, such as lowering their credit card interest rates or providing help with health insurance.

The government’s top telecom agency, the Federal Communications Commission, also has enacted changes designed to give consumers relief, adopting rules this summer that pave the way for carriers to enroll customers in call-blocking technology by default. The agency did not require that these services be offered for free, though FCC Chairman Ajit Pai encouraged the industry to provide robocall protections without charge.

Even more robust reforms are awaiting action on Capitol Hill, where House and Senate lawmakers each have passed their own bills in recent months. If they can find agreement, they could adopt the nation’s first anti-robocall law in decades, mandating call-authentication technologies across the industry while empowering state and federal investigators to get tougher in their enforcement actions.

On Thursday, Stein in North Carolina said the states’ goal is to catalyze efforts by industry to make progress on ending robocalls, adding: “We don’t want our efforts to be contingent on actions by Congress.”