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Robocalls: "They are the consumer plague of our time," says Congressman

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Fed up with robocalls? Federal regulators hope to curb some of the billions of robocalls consumers in the U.S. receive every month. Today, the Federal Communications Commission said it will vote in June on a measure to allow wireless carriers to block spam calls by default. Currently a customer has to take the extra step of requesting tools from the cell carrier or downloading apps to weed out the unwanted calls.

It's cheap and easy for scammers to call millions of people. Weak laws and enforcement have put pressure on Congress, regulators and the cell companies to act. The numbers are staggering: 5 billion calls a month to U.S. consumers according to call-blocker YouMail.

Some robocalls are from scammers, others from telemarketers and debt collectors. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai raised the threat of regulatory action saying, "if the companies do not take the steps necessary to protect consumers." Phone-industry group USTelecom said Pai's proposal was "big and bold" and would help stop unwanted calls from reaching consumers.

There are also bills in Congress addressing the robocall problem. A widely supported, bipartisan Senate bill would require carriers to verify that a number popping up on your caller ID is real. A big problem with robocalls is that many are "spoofed," or faked to look like they're coming from a number that matches your area code and the next three digits of your number, so you think it's a neighbor and are more likely to pick up. The industry is working on deploying this long-in-the-works system, but it's been a slow process. Pai has threatened regulatory action if it's not done this year.

The Senate bill would also give the FCC more power to fine the people responsible for spam calls and puts together federal agencies and state officials to figure out ways to pursue criminal cases against robocall scammers, not just civil ones.

The protections in place haven’t been enough to prevent consumers from being hounded by robocalls, but these proposals in Congress would ensure that phone companies do more to stop spoofed calls. That would be a major win for consumers.

As for how you can protect yourself now? CR says you can try using your phone carrier’s anti-robocall service. Many companies offer alerts to tell consumers that an incoming call may be from a telemarketer, and others offer services that block calls from probable scammers.

Also available are third-party robocall-blocking apps. CR says Nomorobo, Hiya, and YouMail offer call-protection options. To find out what your phone carrier offers, go to its website and look for links referring to call security or call blocking.

ABC3340 News spoke with UAB's Gary Warner who specialized in cyber-security about his suggestions to fight back against robocalls. Watch our new report to learn more.

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