You’re trying to sit down to dinner, but the phone won’t stop ringing. And it’s not friends, family or the office. It’s another unwanted recorded call pitching you a product you don’t want. Or, worse, attempting to scam you with, say, a phony tax bill. The same technology that allows you to stay connected with friends and family on the internet also has made it easier for illegal communications to flourish, including unwanted and illegal robocalling.

We’re working hard to develop tools to shut down these calls. But this is an industry-wide problem because any call from one person to another usually touches the networks of multiple companies. Which is why we’re calling for a comprehensive, industry-wide approach to address unwanted and illegal robocalls. We’re encouraging the deployment of new technology along with increased law enforcement involvement and prosecution of offenders to deal with the particularly troubling issue of illegal calls.

I am on the Do Not Call list. Why do I receive any unwanted telephone marketing calls?

Since 2003, Americans have been able to opt out of receiving most telemarketing calls by putting their phone numbers on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) National Do Not Call Registry. But there are important exceptions for some organizations: calls from political parties, campaigns and candidates; calls from non-profits and charities; calls from legitimate “survey” organizations because they are not offering to sell anything to consumers; and calls from companies with which you have done or sought to do business. Any of those organizations are permitted to call you even though you are on the Do Not Call list. In addition, bad guys and fraudsters don’t pay any attention to the Do Not Call list.

What is a robocall?

If the phone rings and a recorded message is on the other end, you are receiving a robocall. In 2009, the FTC established new rules prohibiting most prerecorded or automated calls unless the caller had the consumers’ prior written approval. Thus, if you haven’t given your written permission to receive that call, the call is illegal and very often being made to perpetrate fraud.  Autodialers are now commonly used to initiate thousands of phone calls a minute for a very low cost.  And as federal regulators have discovered, tracking and stopping these calls is extremely challenging.  Many originate overseas; we estimate that at least 50% of these calls use caller ID info that is spoofed to look like a friendly or local caller; and once caught, many fraudsters simply change their corporate identity and resume illegal operations on a new network or with a new caller identity. But as with the Do Not Call list, there are exceptions here, too, including exemptions for political parties and candidates; emergency alerts; and pending rules that would permit the federal government (and certain government contractors) to use robocall technology to contact you regarding federal debts or federally guaranteed debts (i.e., tax bills, student loans).

Can’t the telephone companies do something about it?

The FCC clarified that it’s acceptable for phone companies to create automated tools that block robocalls, as long as customers consent and are aware that they might also miss some legitimate automated calls, such as public safety alerts. But there’s no switch we can simply flip on our own that will stop these calls once and for all. Identifying and blocking illegal robocalls – while permitting legitimate calls (including emergency calls) to go through – is an enormous challenge.  We handle over 4 billion calls a day. We either have to detect and identify these robocalls as they happen, or be able to match the Caller ID of the caller against lists of known robocallers. We do those things today, blocking millions of illegal calls daily before they get to our customers.  And we make available to our customers third-party apps and services, such as Nomorobo, which can be effective. But despite those efforts, we haven’t been able to single-handedly develop a solution that blocks all illegal calls.

So what is the solution then?

Combatting these determined fraudsters requires a more holistic approach that goes beyond one-off, individual-company efforts and blocking tools. It will take everyone working together. Not just telephone companies, but companies across the broader tech ecosystem, including smartphone manufacturers and the companies who build the smartphone operating systems. In addition, we need continued rigorous enforcement of the bad guys and fraudsters by regulatory and law enforcement agencies, including the FCC, FTC, FBI, among others.  We’ve been working with these stakeholders for several years now on robocalls. But it’s time for all of us to do more.

Here’s what we’re doing and pushing for:

  • Working with industry groups to develop secure Caller-ID authentication technology designed to let you actually trust the Caller ID on voice calls made over IP networks. [IP stands for internet Protocol – essentially the language of the internet]. Secure Caller ID makes it so no matter where an IP call comes from, you’ll know who is really calling. You can choose to block or reject the call on your device. This will only work if all telecom companies are on board, though. This capability should help people on IP networks screen the vast majority of unwanted and illegal robocalls.
  • Encouraging public policies leading to a faster transition to IP-based networks and services. Caller ID authentication works best with IP-based networks and services. And a traditional voice network limits automated technological fixes.
  • Supporting a bill in Congress — H.R. 2669, the bipartisan Anti-Spoofing Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) and co-sponsored by Representatives Joe Barton (R-TX), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Bob Latta (R-OH), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and 19 others. This law would update the Truth in Caller ID Act to give law enforcement better tools to pursue illegal robocallers wherever they are hiding in the IP-enabled world.
  • Work with smartphone and operating system companies to provide call controls to reject unwanted robocalls when customers receive them — just like spam email.

As those efforts unfold, we’re also working within AT&T on new technology and capabilities to help our customers by:

  • Enhancing the current processes for robocall identification, tracking and blocking on our network using data analytics and other capabilities. We think this technique could block many robocalls for customers across our wireless, wireline and U-verse Voice services – representing potentially tens of millions of robocalls beyond the millions we already block.
  • Developing technology to identify and block unwanted and illegal robocalls for our customers on IP-based calling services. We already provide customers with world-class protection against unwanted text message spam. Similarly, we’ll integrate this robocall-blocking technology directly into our network.
  • Building a reporting tool at where anybody can report robocall numbers they receive. We’ll investigate and take appropriate action.

Illegal and unwanted robocalls are a major issue. We know our customers are getting these aggravating and often fraudulent calls with greater frequency. We’re committed to getting this right. And we’re committed to a multi-step, multi-layered effort to stay ahead of this issue for our customers.

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