FCC decides no mo’ stalling on robocalls

Aaron Foss: Really huge, really fast.

By J.L. KOMINICKI // In a decided victory for Port Jefferson-based startup Nomorobo, the Federal Communications Commission has adopted rules that give telephone companies wide latitude in blocking robocalls and spam text messages on landlines and wireless phones.

Nomorobo, whose cloud-based, patent-pending technology has hung up on millions of unwanted telemarketing calls over the past two years, was among two dozen companies lobbying the FCC to block so-called robocalls, which the agency concedes is the No. 1 source of consumer complaints, with more than 215,000 fielded last year.

And no one made the point more succinctly than Nomorobo founder Aaron Foss, who brought along more than 25,000 letters from local consumers – 250 pounds of them – to a January hearing.

“This was a very good week for me,” Foss told Innovate LI. “There was always some ambiguity in the law that allowed the carriers to say ‘We’d like to help but we can’t.’ Now there’s no question. They can if they want to. But the big question remains, will they? I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But let’s see.”

Consumers have certainly responded, Foss said, with thousands signing up for his service in just the past few days.

Under the new rules, phone carriers can block robocalls and automated text messages if requested by consumers. The move clarifies the agency’s interpretation of a 1991 law that banned telemarketers from making cold calls to consumers. Companies have skirted the ban by using automated dialing machines, prerecorded calls and text messages. The new rule makes it clear that texts are the same as phone calls, and that phone carriers may block robocalls to consumers if asked.

The FCC’s two Republican commissioners opposed the rule change, arguing that it goes too far and will prevent companies that use robocalls and autodialers for legitimate purposes, like taxi companies calling to say a cab is on the way.

However, the rule does includes some exceptions, including permission for health-care providers to remind customers of necessary medication refills and banks to alert consumers to possible fraud in their bank accounts.

Consumer advocacy groups praised the FCC action, and USTelecom, a trade group representing the phone industry, expressed measured support, warning that technological advances will likely mean that telemarketers stay one step ahead of regulators.

Among the FCC changes:

  • Service providers can offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers and implement market-based solutions that consumers can use to stop unwanted robocalls.
  • Consumers have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time.
  • If a phone number has been reassigned, companies must stop calling the number after one call.
  • A consumer whose name is in the contacts list of an acquaintance’s phone does not consent to receive robocalls from third-party applications downloaded by the acquaintance.
  • “Autodialer” is defined in the Act as any technology with the capacityto dial random or sequential numbers. This definition ensures that robocallers cannot skirt consumer consent requirements through changes in calling technology design or by calling from a list of numbers.
  • The Commission reaffirmed that consumers are entitled to the same consent-based protections for texts as they are for voice calls to wireless numbers.
  • Equipment used to send Internet-to-phone text messages is an autodialer, so the caller must have consumer consent before calling.
  • Free calls or texts to alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills, among other financial alerts or healthcare messages, are allowed without prior consent, but other types of financial or healthcare calls, such as marketing or debt collection calls, are not allowed under these limited and very specific exemptions. Also, consumers have the right to opt out from these permitted calls and texts at any time.
  • The FCC vote made no changes to the Do-Not-Call Registry, which restricts unwanted telemarketing calls, but built on the Registry’s effectiveness by closing loopholes and ensuring that consumers are fully protected from unwanted calls, including those not covered by the Registry.

Nomorobo’s technology won a 2013 contest held by the Federal Trade Commission, and its $50,000 prize. Backed by private investors, Foss, who also teaches entrepreneurship at Molloy College, will now step up efforts to license the technology to carriers while adding additional features. Coming soon: Call logs that allow consumers to see who Nomorobo blocked, and customized call blocking that allows users to allow certain telemarketers through.

“It’s interesting to see how the business is evolving,” he said. “In all honesty, it was always part of the plan to provide a premium service, but I’m waffling now. Do I really want to charge consumers for the extras? I’m not sure I do. Especially since we’re doing so well licensing the black list to service companies.

“Consumers certainly shouldn’t have to pay to block calls they never wanted in the first place,” he added. “That’s really something the carriers should agree to cover.”