June 5, 2019 - 2:35 pm
By Babette Boliek | FCC Chief Economist
Eric Burger | FCC Chief Technology Officer

In the three minutes it takes to read this page, American consumers will receive about 350,000 unwanted calls to their homes, businesses, and mobile phones. Of those 350,000 unwanted calls, an estimated 47%, or 164,500 calls, are illegal—scams aimed at tricking the hurried, the trusting, and the vulnerable consumer. Each year the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) receives hundreds of thousands of complaints from consumers about the unrelenting and constant bombardment of unwanted robocalls.  Although the FCC has taken aggressive enforcement action against illegal callers, enforcement occurs only after consumers receive the calls they so detest. Consequently, tomorrow, the FCC will consider taking immediate and future steps to permit the blocking of illegal or unwanted calls before they reach consumers’ phones.

You may wonder, “Wasn’t the Do Not Call Registry supposed to take care of this?”  The FCC hears you!  The Do Not Call Registry is good at reducing the number of legal calls that people get from marketing firms.  Law-abiding firms are scrupulous about ensuring they have consumer consent and check the do-not-call list before contacting people.  But most robocalls today are not from law-abiding firms.  They are illegal.  Since they have little concern for the law, they have no interest in checking the do-not-call list before placing a call.

On June 6, the FCC is going to vote to clarify that under the existing rules your phone company can step in to block unwanted calls. Soon your phone company will know with certainty that it is able to block calls based on computer analytics that tells them that these calls are unwanted robocalls. Your phone company may already offer you such a service today on an opt-in basis. However, many people are not aware these services are available or do not know how to turn them on. Of course, you can opt out of your phone company’s blocking service at any time.

It’s economics:  Illegal robocalls are not just a drain on individual households’ peace of mind, they are also a drain on our economy.  According to the most recent data compiled by YouMail, there were about 2.5 billion illegal robocalls in March 2019 alone.  The FCC estimates the cost of these calls to consumers is at least $3 billion per year from lost time alone, not including monetary losses to fraud.  Moreover, phone companies also benefit from this decision because the cost of handling service calls by consumers can be more than $10 per call.  Thus, avoiding robocall-related customer service calls will save phone companies millions of dollars per year, far exceeding the cost of providing call blocking services. This, in fact, is one of the reasons most carrier-provided opt-in call blocking services offered today are free to the consumer.

Opt-out vs. Opt-in:  Inertia is an obstacle for many consumers who otherwise would take part in a call-blocking program.  Moreover, smaller service providers have told us that convincing consumers to affirmatively sign up for a call-blocking program, rather than offering it as the default, can be costly and ineffective.  As Consumers Union explains, “so few consumers opt-in to robocall blocking tools, yet continually express their frustration with the unending barrage of nuisance calls.”  Hiya observes that 95% of its customers choose to remain on its opt-out call-blocking program while only 20% choose to join its opt-in call blocking program.  Setting a call-blocking service as the default can significantly increase consumer participation while keeping consumer choice.  Finally, when phone companies block unwanted calls, robocall campaigns will be much less economical to inflict on the consumer.

For those who have taken the time to let us know that unwanted calls bother you, the FCC thanks you.  The volume of the consumer complaints the FCC has received – well over 200,000 per year – says it all.   Based on these numbers, the FCC believes that most consumers would prefer to have blocking in place – that is why you will not have to take any action for this decision to benefit you.

The FCC’s vote will have a big impact and is a step in the right direction to restore the telephone as a trusted device for connecting people.