Time to shut down robocalls

Protecting businesses and consumers from unwanted robocalls presents a challenge and an opportunity for the technology, mobile and telecom industries.

The Federal Communications Commission will address the issue at its next meeting June 18th in Washington, D.C. The FCC has put forth an ambitious proposal of new rules to redefine "auto-dialers" in an effort to prevent misuse of existing laws, and to allow consumers to revoke their consent to receive such calls at any time.

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Despite the FCC's best efforts, robo-dialers will still find clever ways to get around any policy protections. The U.S. government has long recognized that unwanted calls are a concern. Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) back in 1991, and more recently the FCC strengthened its protections in 2012. These regulations require telemarketers to have prior express written consent to use auto-dialers and/or make pre-recorded calls to consumer phones.

The Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call Registry, implemented in 2004, has not been able to fix the problem, and call-blocking technology from telecommunications and other service providers, has only seen limited success. The "block-one-caller-at-a-time" approach has had little effect against robo-dialers who can place millions of calls in seconds – often from overseas companies outside U.S. jurisdiction.

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The new FCC rules include provisions that should open the market for industry to come up with more innovative solutions to reduce, if not kill, spam calls which are proliferating.

A recent survey of U.S. smartphone users conducted by my company, YouMail, found that at least one-third of Americans get a spam call every day and nearly two-thirds waste time dealing with them. The problem is only getting worse. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) networks have made robocalls so cheap that many high-volume calling scams have become very profitable. It's easy for someone with an offshore auto-dialer to spoof phone numbers and make countless spam calls. These scammers have little fear of paying a penalty under FCC rules and regulations. 

Robocalls run the gamut. Not only do they include scammers and telemarketers but also automated dialing systems that can deliver helpful voicemail reminders to pay a bill or visit your dentist. Nonprofits seeking donations and political candidates are among the heaviest users of automated-dialing systems. Certain telemarketing calls are welcome and users should have the option to determine how aggressive they want to get in blocking specific calls and potential spammers.

The FCC continues to attempt new policy fixes, but inviting industry to help will change the game with more innovative solutions. For example, we know that nothing stops robocallers in their tracks faster than the reply message, "This number is out of service." This automatic reply forces auto-dialers (and sometimes debt collectors and ex-boyfriends) to conclude that the number they've called is not a working number, and eventually they stop calling it. Tens of millions of calls have been blocked with this automated "Out of Service" reply.

Under the new FCC rules, this is the type of innovative technology could be offered by carriers to stop unwanted robocalls to wireless and landline home phones.

Eliminating unwanted calls is a problem that requires a mix of legal and technological solutions. The Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call Registry has been largely ineffective, but this month it will host a public app challenge called Humanity Strikes Back that will award $50,000 for the best software solutions to combat robocalls.

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New rules to address robocalls have been a long time coming and it's time to tackle auto-dialing head-on with intelligent technology and stricter policy protections. The government is doing its part to strengthen the rules and collaborate with industry. Now it's up to industry to come up with more innovative solutions to thwart robocallers who are blatantly violating the "Do Not Call" lists.

Commentary by Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a mobile telecommunication-services company. Follow him on Twitter @MalibuAlex.