Fighting Robocalls

FILE - In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans. Major phone companies are telling the country’s state attorneys general that they will do more against robocalls. It’s the latest step from government and industry to combat the growing problem. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

There is a welcome new agreement between the nation’s major providers of telephone services and the attorneys general of all 50 states, including S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, and the District of Columbia. It launches an eight-point plan for curbing illegal and intrusive telephone calls that should help fight a major consumer annoyance and a rising series of scams. And it does so without turning to a gridlocked Congress for help.

The agreement also confirms the status of state attorneys general when working together as a major new force in American politics.

The robocall initiative is a bipartisan move that unites the nation’s attorneys general, each of whom has authority to bring civil and criminal charges against scammers who take advantage of the nation’s privately owned telephone service providers. The attorneys general made it clear to the big telecom providers that they would benefit from working together to address criminal activity and help consumers protect themselves from scams.

In the eight-point agreement, 12 telephone service providers, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Comcast and U.S. Cellular, pledged to keep the state attorneys general informed about their efforts to improve customer services for identifying possible scams and blocking unwanted calls.

Customers should benefit directly from the service providers’ promise to offer mobile phone customers and Voice over Internet Protocol residential customers free call blocking and labeling services now offered by only some providers. The group also pledged to investigate suspicious calls and calling patterns and to notify law enforcement officials; to confirm the identity of commercial customers; to make it easier to trace back calls to their origins; and to cooperate in trace-back investigations by law enforcement.

And they pledged to implement new technology to identify scammers using telephone numbers not registered to them. Where this technology has already been implemented, telephone service providers now notify cellphone users that incoming calls may be scams. That’s certainly a welcome tool in this age of increased criminal activity by phone.

Together with stepped-up enforcement activity by the Federal Trade Commission, these promises, if fully implemented, should greatly reduce the volume of unwanted calls while not endangering nice-to-have automated services such as wake-up calls and appointment reminders.

The FTC, in its recent actions, has found and prosecuted a number of firms that take brazen advantage of the federal Do Not Call list to bombard those numbers with unwanted but untraceable calls.

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The power of state attorneys general working together has been demonstrated in the past, although usually on a partisan basis.

Republican state attorneys general including Mr. Wilson had already found that federal courts are willing to listen when they objected to executive overreach by the Obama administration in the cases of the Clean Power Plan, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and the Clean Water Plan’s scaled-back definition of “waters of the United States.” (Mr. Wilson has faced criticism for his stance on all three issues, but we agree with him that the Obama administration lacked necessary congressional authorization for its actions.)

But the new initiative by all state attorneys general working together on robocalls takes this power of concerted action to a higher plane. It is a good example to follow for our divided Congress for bipartisan cooperation in solving real problems.

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