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FCC "strike force" in war against robocalls

Robocall crackdown "complicated"
FCC "strike force" losing war against robocalls? 04:18

This piece originally aired on May 11, 2017. 

More than 29 billion robocalls bombarded Americans last year.

That amounts to roughly 90 robocalls for every man, woman and child, with some getting several calls each day.

In a rare interview, CBS News correspondent Anna Werner speaks with new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and goes inside the new effort to stop these calls to your home, cell phone or office.

The "do not call" registry debuted nearly 14 years ago, preventing many unwanted calls from companies that follow the law.

But people running scams don't necessarily care about the law, and they can now place thousands of illegal calls for pennies on the dollar.

Robocall scams cost Americans $350 million 02:37

The telecom industry claims it's working to block them, but that its efforts are complicated both by legal hurdles and the difficulty of tracing where these calls are coming from.

"It's not normal to listen to your voicemails and immediately have people yelling at you to stop calling them," said Peter Clarke. 

Clarke hadn't called anyone but when he checked his phone, he found more than a dozen missed calls with messages like, "I think you have the wrong number, Peter." 

Or, "Hi. You guys need to quit calling my phone. I don't have a credit card. This is ridiculous." 

It's called "spoofing." Scammers make it appear as if robocalls to others are coming from your phone — making the actual scammers nearly impossible to track.  

"It's frustrating. There's literally nothing that you can do to prevent yourself from being a victim to this spoofing," Clarke said. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai CBS News

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai says tackling those scams is a top priority, but says the issue is "exceptionally complicated." 

There were 2.5 billion of those calls last month, up nine percent from the year before.

Last year, the FCC convened what it called a "robocall strike force" made up of 33 telecom and tech companies. In a report last month, the group said it's working toward fixes like developing a standard authentication technology to verify exactly where calls come from. That's currently not possible since any call can go through multiple networks.

Werner asked, "Do you have a deadline for companies to fix this?" 

"We certainly want them to move as quickly as possible and as aggressively as possible. Some of it is difficult to do, because these are highly technical areas," Pai said.

Tim Marvin is with the Consumers Union which two years ago, started a campaign to get the government and phone companies to stop robocallers.

On whether he thinks this problem will get solved without significant pressure from the government, Marvin said, "So far, no."

"I think the companies could be doing more. They have made small technological progress. It just isn't enough to actually solve the problem," Marvin said. 

In fact, former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said last year phone companies should "offer call-blocking services to their customers now – at no cost". His replacement, Pai, is a former Verizon attorney.

Asked if he would insist the same of phone companies as his predecessor, Pai said, "That's one of the things I'm very open to doing, because I think that it's important for consumers to have all the tools at their disposal."  

Werner asked, "You say 'open' to doing though?"

"Well, there's some questions about our legal authority that we're working with lawyers to figure out. In some cases, we don't necessarily have the authority to mandate something. But from a consumer perspective, I think it's a good idea," Pai said. 

Whatever the hurdles, Peter Clarke says companies should be doing more.

"You know, you see all these line items for fees, fees, fees, so I would assume that I'm paying the companies to implement fixes," Clarke said. 

The FCC is studying a proposal that would allow companies to block numbers they know are unassigned.

Of course, that might just encourage more spoofing of numbers that people actually use.

Pai hasn't scheduled any future meetings for the "robocall strike force" but in the meantime, several call-blocking apps are available to help reduce the number of robocalls to your cell phone.

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