Can I be brutally honest? I don’t like the calls from “Phyllis from Card Services.” She has an annoying voice.

The first time I got the call from the “Treasury Department” telling me the sheriff was on the way to my house to arrest me was a little traumatic, but I got used to it after the third or fourth call.  

Likewise, I think I am going to pass on the extended warranty for my car in spite of the 15-20 calls telling me how much I need it. 

Finally, though it was fun for a while, I am now officially tired of talking to the “software support center.” The callers get so angry when they realize I know their game and am just leading them on to annoy them as much as they annoy me. 

Most people would agree, these calls are annoying.  Please make the bad people go away who make these calls! 

Well, our federal government heard me and the rest of the world and is trying to do something.  But, be careful what you wish for. 

Just a little background is in order.  In response to consumer complaints, in August of 2016 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched the Robocall Strike Force. The Strike Force included telecommunication service providers, ISP, device makers, and cable providers. 

In October of 2016 a “Robocall Strike Force Plan” was introduced. The plan outlined actions under three initiatives: 1) source authentication, 2) network and consumer call blocking tools, and 3) effective enforcement with the power to shut down offending accounts. 

On March 23, 2017 the FCC proposed new rules to facilitate voice provider’s blocking of “robocalls.” See the FCC NPRM & Notice of Inquiry here

On August 31, 2017 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jumped into the fray. The FTC announced that they were “escalating the fight against illegal robocalls by publishing on its website a daily list of Do Not Call (DNC) reported call complaints. (The list is published here.) Per Acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen: “Sharing the critical information from consumers’ unwanted call complaints to enable industry innovators to stop illegal robocalls is exactly the type of public-private partnership the FTC champions.” 

This all sounds good, right? Why am I sounding the alarm? The problem is what our government is trying has significant unintended consequences that will hurt legitimate businesses and specifically hurt the call center and ARM industries. 

The problem starts with the inflammatory term “ROBOCALLS.” First of all, the FCC and the FTC have significantly different interpretations of that term.  The FCC spent much of its July 2015 rulemaking trying to define the term. Just what is or is not a “robocall” under the FCC interpretation is still the subject of significant litigation. Oral arguments in the case of ACA International, et al. v. the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and United States of America were heard in October of 2016 at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit. The appellate court decision in that case could have significant ramifications. 

The FTC involvement in the fight against “robocalls” encompasses a much broader definition of the term.  The data they are uploading on a daily basis is a list of “unwanted calls reported by consumers.” A quick review of any one of the daily lists will show that not all of these “unwanted calls” are the same type of “robocalls” under the FCC definition.  In fact, one of the “subject” categories for these calls is “Debt Collection.” 

The second initiative from the Robocall Strike Force Plan noted above (network and consumer call blocking tools) is the source of the problem.  This initiative focuses on ways the carrier and network and consumers will can and will use to block calls. It is these tools that legitimate businesses should be concerned about. 

Consumer call blocking tools are simple to describe. They are apps that a consumer can download to their phone to block unwanted calls. A quick search of the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store will produce numerous apps that can be quickly downloaded and installed to block calls. The efficiency and reliability of these apps is all over the board. Buyer beware! The key with these apps is that they require an affirmative action by the consumer to block calls. 

The network blocking of calls is a much bigger concern. Basically, this is where a carrier (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, or other) will install functionality on their system that will either block a call from arriving on an individual’s phone or allow the call to go through, but identify it with labels such as “Possible Spam,” “Spam Likely,” “Nuisance Likely,” “Telemarketing, “Informational”, or maybe even “Debt Collector.” 

The major carriers listed above are all in various stages of rolling out “robocall” blocking technology.  However, it is clear that the technology is not yet perfect. Members of the insideARM Compliance Professionals Forum are telling us that calls from legitimate businesses are being incorrected blocked or labeled as “Possible Spam.” Right party connects are being negatively impacted (who wants to answer a call from anyone that is labeled as “Possible Spam?”). We have received anecdotal reports of right party connects down by 15-30% -- and the call blocking technology at the carrier level is not yet near 100% utilization. 

What can be done? 

First of all, the industry needs to be talking and working with the developers of individual apps and carrier level software to eliminate the blocking of legitimate business calls (we are aware that this is happening as multiple CRC members have initiated these conversations; we suspect others have as well). The developers of these products recognize the need to work with the industry to avoid costly litigation from call center operators. 

Secondly, carriers need to understand that they have some responsibility in this area too.  Along those lines, insideARM notes with some interest that, in an ex parte filing with the FCC on August 31, 2017, AT&T encouraged the FCC to create a safe harbor for providers “that cooperate with industry-led efforts designed to address the issue of illegal robocalls, and implement policies and procedures detailing its practices to identify and address such robocalls, including procedures to cease blocking of any calls upon learning they are legitimate calls.”

In other words, the carriers want the ability to roll out software at the system level that may block or mislabel calls from legitimate businesses and say, “Sorry, those unintended consequences are not my problem.” 

Now is the time for all ARM industry associations to work together on this issue. The ability for a debt collector to contact a consumer is getting crushed on numerous fronts. On September 20, 2017 PACE (The Professional Association for Customer Engagement) is hosting an industry coalition meeting to discuss this matter and develop action plans to address the problem. insideARM and the Consumer Relations Consortium (CRC) will be in attendance (as well as a number of other major industry groups that we are aware of). insideARM will report as appropriate on developments at that meeting. 

The TCPA and the 2015 FCC Rules interpreting the act have effectively eliminated the use of technology to efficiently call cell phones. Land line usage is dropping like an anchor. The CFPB is on the brink of announcing proposed debt collection rules that are likely to reduce the number of call attempts that can be made. Now, add this latest call blocking technology and the industry is challenged again. 

One can only hope that the CFPB will open the door to use of new methods of communicating with the consumer – email, texts, chat, private messaging, etc. The reality is that these are now the preferred methods of communication for many, many consumers. The door needs to be opened. Rules need to be enacted that provide directions for use of these alternative methods of communication so that creditors can feel comfortable allowing their service providers to do so. 

Pardon the slightly tortured Princess Leia quote from STAR WARS – “Help us CFPB, you’re our only hope!”

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