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States-Phone Companies Deal Will Help To Block Robocalls

NOEL KING, HOST:

At some point, you have probably answered your phone and heard something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

COMPUTERIZED VOICE #1: Hi, this is Josh from the customer service department. Can you hear me OK?

COMPUTERIZED VOICE #2: It is urgent that you contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rate.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE #3: You have qualified for a free medical alert system.

KING: There were almost 50 billion robocalls last year, but we might finally be getting some relief. The 12 biggest telephone companies have all pledged to implement a new technology that can spot and block robocalls.

Josh Stein is one of 51 attorneys general who brokered that agreement with the phone companies - that's every attorney general from every state and Washington, D.C. Josh Stein is on the line now. Good morning, sir.

JOSH STEIN: Noel, good morning. And I just want to be clear - I was not the Josh from that telemarketing robocall you just played.

KING: (Laughter) So you say. Now listen; you spearheaded the coalition to get this done, so congratulations.

STEIN: Thank you.

KING: What is this new technology?

STEIN: Well, to be clear, it's not just a single technology, but it's a series of technologies. The main one is a call-blocking technology, which the telephone companies can implement at the network level, meaning that it happens before the call comes to you. It's nothing you have to do. But through their use of algorithms, they can actually figure out what spiking calls are illegal robocalls, and what are just the normal traffic that come through their systems. And so it will automatically screen out most of these illegal calls.

But there's more technology than that. They have technology for people who want to screen out even more calls. They can label or block other calls. There's technology so that - you know when you get a phone call, and it looks like it comes from down the street?

KING: Yeah.

STEIN: They have your area code, your prefix. They can make sure that that number actually comes from the number that's doing the call.

KING: All right, so when will this be implemented? When can I start answering my cell phone again?

STEIN: Well, I wish I could tell you it will be tomorrow. I wish tomorrow there'll be no more robocalls. But it's not going to be that simple. Some of the phone companies are doing some of the principles that we got them to agree to. There are eight principles in all. Some of them have to do with preventing calls coming in. Some have to do with aiding state attorneys general and other regulators to enforce the law.

What we need to effectively end robocalls is all carriers have to do all of these things. And that's what we're trying to do is lift the entire industry's performance to a higher level. And then through cooperation with the private sector and law enforcement, we can put a dent in these robocalls.

KING: There have been other efforts to curb robocalls, right? There have been attempts at enforcement at both the state and the federal level. The FCC has gotten involved. What specifically makes this different?

STEIN: What makes a difference is it's comprehensiveness, that there are commitments that they're making that will prevent calls coming in - that call-blocking at the network level, the free, easy-to-use technology that will be made available to customers, the call authentication technology to know that the phone isn't spoofed. They're going to actively monitor their networks.

Those are all prevention efforts so that our phones will ring less, but there will always be scammers. These are these guys are criminals. They're smart. They're creative, and they're greedy. So they're not going to stop. That's why we have to up our enforcement. But for us to enforce the law, we have to know who is the culprit, who's doing this work. And a lot of what we're trying to do is take the darkness that exists that allows this activity to go on and shine a bright light so that we can go after those perpetrators.

And they're putting in - the technology for them to trace back the call so that they can identify who's doing it is getting better every day. And then they're going to share that information with us so we can go after them.

KING: North Carolina attorney general Josh Stein. Thanks so much, sir.

STEIN: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.