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AT&T Is Leading a Crackdown on Obnoxious Robocalls

AT&T said this week it’s forming a “strike force” to beat back robocalls that interrupt your dinner and trick you into talking to prerecorded messages, in response to mounting complaints by consumers and public officials.

These robocalls are illegal under federal law if you haven’t opted in to receive them. Yet thousands of Americans a year are being hit with automated calls and texts against their will, officials say, sometimes simply because they’ve switched to a phone number that’s already on some marketer’s list. There’s not much you can do to prevent yourself from getting robo-called, which is why regulators and lawmakers have been pressuring the industry to take action.

The strike force on robocalls won’t just involve AT&T, but also potentially other wireless carriers, cellphone manufacturers and software developers. Its objective? To come up with ways to make sure marketers and other robo-callers can’t get around regulations and blacklists aimed at blocking those calls.

The big trick here is developing technology that can better identify when a call is coming from a suspect source before a consumer answers the phone. As part of the effort, AT&T said in a blog post that the strike force plans to craft a “Do Not Originate” list – which sounds a lot like a “Do Not Call” list that simply contains a list of numbers known to generate robocalls. AT&T also vowed to embrace newer caller ID standards that could also help cut down on phone spam.

Although federal regulators last year cleared the way for carriers like AT&T to offer call-blocking services, in some cases those services charge a fee to consumers. That’s not good enough, Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a blog post last week.

“I have sent letters to the CEOs of major wireless and wireline phone companies calling on them to offer call-blocking services to their customers now – at no cost to you,” Wheeler wrote. “Consumers want and deserve more control over the calls they receive.”

The FCC receives thousands of consumer complaints about robocalls every year. The issue accounts for the largest category of FCC complaints, and the agency now publishes data on every public complaint it receives about robocalls to name and shame the callers. But even a quick look at the data shows it’s not easy to track down the true origins of a particular robo-call.

Other high-profile officials have been putting pressure on telecom companies to up their game, too. Earlier this month, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., urged carriers to do more to fight automated calls and texts by setting up a database that tracks reassigned numbers. Keeping track of when a number has been transferred to another customer would help prevent unwitting new customers from being ambushed by robocalls that the previous user of the phone number had opted in to receive, the senators said.

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