FCC votes to expand crackdown on 'robocalls'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to pursue new rules to help consumers who are being inundated with “robocalls” and to set new standards to ensure phone calls come from legitimate numbers.

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The FCC wants a reliable verification system that would prevent scam artists from spoofing the number of a bank, debt collector, government tax agency or other organizations to trick consumers into disclosing confidential financial or account information.

One report estimates U.S. consumers get 2.5 billion monthly robocalls - automated, prerecorded calls that regulators have labeled a “scourge.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “Americans are mad as hell” at robocalls, which represent the top source of consumer complaints. He said he thinks the agency’s actions could make a significant dent in the volume of calls and said the FCC is acting as “an aggressive cop on the beat.”

Fellow Commissioner Mignon Clyburn agreed. “Given the severity and complexity of the unwanted robocall problem, this agency recognizes that it must take a multi-pronged approach, to address this persistent problem,” Clyburn said.

The FCC also wants to prevent unwanted calls after a person gets a reassigned phone number. The agency said there is no single resource with up-to-date phone numbers, and wants public comment on how providers should report when a phone number has been reassigned and how the data could be used.

When a consumer cancels an account, the number is returned to a carrier and often reassigned.

The agency also voted to begin drafting rules to prevent consumers from being switched to a different phone provider without their permission or having unauthorized charges added to bills. The FCC may require a phone carrier check directly with the consumer before switching an account, rather than relying on a second carrier’s request for the change.

Separately, the FCC voted 2-1 to fine New Mexico-based Dialing Services $2.88 million for facilitating “unlawful robocalls” after an investigation in 2012 found the company had made millions of unwanted calls. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last month, the FCC proposed a $120 million fine on a Florida resident after it alleged his operation made almost 100 million robocalls in a three-month period to trick consumers with “exclusive” vacation deals from well-known travel and hospitality companies.

Last year, the FCC formed a task force of more than 30 major technology and communications companies seeking to eliminate robocalls but the group did not propose a comprehensive fix. Carriers cannot block all robocalls or texts because some may be legitimate communications from schools, weather alerts, utilities, political calls and others.

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe