Consumer Protection Month at the FCC
Americans are reaping the benefits of rapid and exciting changes in the ways we communicate. But many of the problems that consumers confront stubbornly remain.
For too long, Americans have been plagued by unwanted and unlawful robocalls. For too long, they’ve found unauthorized charges and changes to their phone service on their bills — practices commonly known as “slamming” and “cramming.” And for too long, some phone calls that are placed to rural residents have been dropped.
Efforts to excommunicate this unholy triad of consumer scourges — unlawful robocalls, slamming/cramming, and rural call completion — headline the FCC’s agenda in July. During Consumer Protection Month, we will take up several public interest initiatives to address problems that too many Americans face.
Unlawful robocalls generate the most frequent source of consumer complaints to the FCC. As agency-watchers know, we’re not starting from scratch in attacking the problem. This past March, the Commission proposed to give voice providers greater leeway to block many “spoofed” calls — specifically, calls that purport to be from unassigned or invalid phone numbers. This move will hopefully pave the way for Do-Not-Originate lists that will help stifle the efforts of illegitimate callers and scam artists. And we’ve made robocalls our top enforcement priority. Just today, the FCC took a major step, proposing to fine the alleged perpetrator of a vast spoofing operation $120 million for the 96 million robocalls he unleashed on American consumers in just three months — robocalls that bilked many vulnerable consumers out of their hard-earned money.
In July, we’re going to address two other issues that could help combat robocalls. First, we’ll explore setting up a reliable system for authenticating phone calls. Among other things, this system would verify that a phone call is really coming from the phone number that shows up on caller ID. Right now, too many malicious robocallers hide their true originating phone number. This lets them evade call-blocking or filtering tools and trick consumers about a call’s true source. An authentication system would help to crack down on this behavior and strengthen call-blocking. I’ve shared a proposal along these lines with my colleagues.
Next month, we’ll also begin to address the problem of calls that are made to reassigned phone numbers. Here’s the scenario: a customer consents to receive calls from a particular business. But later, he switches phone numbers. Someone new is then assigned that customer’s old phone number. She ends up receiving calls that she doesn’t want.
This might seem like a highly specific problem, but an estimated 100,000 numbers are reassigned by wireless carriers every day, with errant phone calls following. So this issue confronts millions of Americans. To tackle this problem, the FCC will vote on considering how reassigned telephone number data could easily be made available to businesses, such as through a consolidated database. Those businesses — restaurants, furniture stores, and the like — could use such a database to ensure that their calls reach the intended recipients.
2. Slamming and Cramming
Too often, we learn about unscrupulous carriers that are targeting the vulnerable. For example, the FCC recently heard from an elderly woman who received a call about a postal service package that supposedly hadn’t been delivered. Her verbal responses were then used to unwittingly switch her phone carrier. This case is a bread-and-butter case of deception to “slam” an older consumer.
To address cases like hers, I’m proposing a rule that would expressly ban misrepresentations on sales calls that typically precede a slam. I’m also urging changes to our regulations that would make it harder for fraudsters to “cram” consumers — that is, put unauthorized charges on consumers’ phone bills.
3. Rural Call Completion
Protecting consumers goes beyond just fighting illicit schemes. It also involves making sure that they get what they pay for. Unfortunately, rural telephone customers aren’t always assured of that. Calls to rural areas drop or never go through too often. In fact, we know that call failure occurs at higher rates for rural consumers than it does for urban ones.
This isn’t right. Whether you live in a big city or a small town, a call placed by a loved one, friend, or customer should go through.
In 2013, the FCC took action to address this problem. The number of rural call completion complaints we receive has dropped since then. But we’re still not where we need to be. That’s why I’m proposing new steps to make our rural call completion rules more effective and less burdensome. In particular, I’m asking the FCC to adopt new, strong rural call completion requirements for certain telecommunications carriers. At the same time, we want calls to rural America to remain affordable, so we’re looking at ways to reduce the burden of existing regulations, such as by eliminating some of the paperwork carriers must file with the Commission that hasn’t proven to be very useful.
4. Helping Consumers with Disabilities
Another way the FCC protects consumers is by making sure communications services are accessible to Americans with disabilities. At our meeting, the agency will consider rules to expand the availability of video-described programming on top-rated broadcast and non-broadcast networks. Specifically, we’ll vote on increasing the number of hours of programming that covered broadcasters and video programmers must provide by 75%. If we take this step, blind and visually-impaired Americans will be able to better understand and enjoy a wider range of popular programming.
5. Other Initiatives
Our consumer protection agenda for July won’t stop there. Harnessing the power of technology to promote innovation is another FCC priority that empowers consumers. This is increasingly true when they’re on the road. For instance, radars in vehicles can enable a variety of safety features such as collision avoidance. To encourage this kind of innovation, the FCC will consider rules that would allocate a large block of high-band frequencies (76–81 GHz spectrum) for use by vehicular radars — if you will, the advanced sensors that are being placed in cars. This spectrum, among other things, would support new short-range radar applications to enhance driver safety.
After yesterday’s summer solstice, the days are getting shorter again. But the list of items on the Commission’s July agenda remains long. During Consumer Protection Month, we’ll extend our efforts to address the problems Americans confront in the communications marketplace and to crack down on those who prey upon the vulnerable for their own financial gain.