Following Google’s lead, telecoms and users can join in the fight against robocalls

robocalls

For the first time, Google joined the legal fight last week against robocalls.

It filed suit against a search engine optimization firm in California for robocalls that promised better results from its search engine. It also set up a new Web page for reporting robocall scams.

But even mighty Google can only do but so much to counter the epidemic of robocalls. Carriers can and should do more to combat them, according to Jan Volzke, vp of reputation services for identity management firm Whitepages.

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We’re at “at a point where we have no trust in a phone call,” he told me in a recent conversation.

In case you’re one of the six people in the U.S. who haven’t encountered such “extremely urgent” robocalls, here’s one Googlized version that also touts Bing and Yahoo. (Although it’s of the same ilk, it’s not clear if this robocall is from the company Google is suing.)

But things could change. In early summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) strengthened carriers’ hand in combatting robocalls.

In a big breakthrough this past June, the FCC gave the carriers the green light to block unwanted calls. The carriers had asked the federal agency to decide if they could legally offer call-blocking, given their common carrier status and other issues. Under common carrier, all traffic needs to be handled in the same manner.

Yes, the agency said. You, the carriers, can block calls.

The FCC also gave consumers additional latitude in how they grant consent and in their ability to block calls. They said consent could be withdrawn at any time, consent is automatically removed if a landline or cell number gets assigned to someone else, and text messages count as robocalls.

Previously, Volzke pointed out, it was difficult to undo consent once you gave it, and “now all robocallers must allow you to get out of it.”

If there is any doubt you have opted out, the FCC clarified that later in the summer — the burden is on the robocalling business to show the user has opted in or that there is an existing business relationship.

Carriers now “need to get serious” about the fight, Volzke said.

As one example of their weak response, he said that carriers offer “these services for a ridiculous $ 4.99 a month to block up to ten [robocalling phone numbers], and then you have to renew it every 30 days.”

He’s not alone in his frustration. The attorneys-general of dozens of states have written to the carriers to take care of this.

But robocalls have not been declining since the FCC’s decision in June. In fact, Volzke said, the amount of mobile spam and robocalls that Whitepages blocks monthly is up about 40 percent since then.

He pointed to several remaining structural issues, such as the fact that unwanted calls can involve multiple carriers and the solution would best be industry-wide. And right now carriers can only block calls as the result of each subscriber’s request — that is, it’s still onesies.

So robocalling — even, probably, robocalling that drops Google’s name — is not going away anytime soon.

As we await the ultimate battle, Volzke offers a few tips:

  • The number one thing that affects the robocalls you get is the amount of consent you’ve given. In most cases, your phone number is the key to granting consent. So, treat your phone number with a level of confidentiality just below that of your Social Security number. He noted with amazement that people list their primary phone number on Facebook and Craigslist, where it can be scooped by a spider.
  • “Get a second phone number” for public postings, he advised, and be careful when you give your number to people or sites you don’t know. “No one reads all the fine print,” Volzke pointed out.
  • If you’re already on robocallers’ list, he suggests getting an app to filter the calls by originating phone number — assuming we’re talking about your smartphone and not your landline. (Not coincidentally, Whitepages offers a robocall- and robotext-blocking app for Android and iOS devices.)
  • Next step up is call blocking for a specific phone number, although the bad guys may well change their number after a while.
  • If that still doesn’t help, and you’re still getting multiple robocalls, Volzke said that getting a new phone number is “sometimes the only option.” That is, until the carriers get their act in gear.

By the way, Whitepages is an identity data company, not the phone book. They are involved in robocall issues because a) phone numbers are a key identifier, and b) they recently bought robocall blocker NumberCop.

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