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By Ryan Tracy
WASHINGTON -- Large telecom companies and attorneys general from every state unveiled Thursday a new pact for combating robocalls, the latest step toward cutting off such calls before they reach a consumer's phone.
Under the agreement, the companies are promising to work to prevent illegal robocalls on their networks and to work with state law enforcement investigating the calls' origins.
Among the companies' promises: to provide customers with free call-blocking technology, investigate and trace illegal calls and confirm the identity of their commercial customers as part of cooperation with law enforcement.
"Some of these carriers are doing some of these things. We need all carriers to do all of these things," said North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. He said he hopes the industry cooperation will help "shine a light on activity occurring in the dark."
The participating companies include AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., T-Mobile US Inc., Sprint Corp., CenturyLink Inc. and seven other large carriers.
The agreement is voluntary and doesn't include a deadline. It isn't yet being signed by smaller companies -- who are said to be significant conduits for illegal calls -- although the larger companies are promising that when they enter into contracts with other voice-call carriers, they will seek to make sure the contract requires cooperation with call-tracing efforts.
The action won't stop illegal calls directly, but is instead designed to bolster efforts to track illegal robocalls by identifying both the callers and any intermediary companies that facilitate the calls.
New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said that with more cooperation from industry in tracing calls, prosecutors will have better tools to bring cases against bad actors. "The great challenge with robocalls is the trace-back challenge," he said, referring to the difficulty of following a call to its origin through the telephone network.
Mr. Stein said states could use the new information to prosecute not only scammers but also telecom carriers that accommodate them, using laws barring unfair and deceptive business practices.
Robocalls aren't always illegal, but many of them do violate laws against fraud or consumer harassment.
Officials in government and industry believe preventing illegal calls from getting onto telephone networks in the first place will be more effective in the long run than simply prosecuting robocallers individually in a yearslong game of Whack a Mole.
The agreement's effectiveness could be limited by the fact that it doesn't yet include internet-based telecom carriers. Industry officials say some of these little-known firms are originating a significant amount of robocall traffic, and authorities are at odds over how to hold those carriers accountable, The Wall Street Journal reported recently.
In statements Thursday, the companies praised the effort, which they said aligned with some of their previous public commitments.
"We remain committed to continuing to work with stakeholders at all levels of government and throughout the industry as we continue to fight this ongoing battle," said a statement from Joan Marsh, executive vice president of regulatory and state external affairs for AT&T.
Some in the industry are pushing for rules that would hold telecom carriers accountable for following industry best practices.
Verizon urged the Federal Communications Commission in July to require telecom providers of all sizes to have programs for monitoring customers and mitigating robocalls. The FCC should put carriers on probation or kick them off the telephone network if they turn a blind eye to illegal traffic, Verizon said.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 22, 2019 15:21 ET (19:21 GMT)
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