Robocalls are not made using robots like these. Image source: Horia Pernea, Flickr.

 When the phone rings, most people look at the caller ID in order to decide whether to answer.

In some cases, people let the call go straight to voice mail, perhaps to avoid a relative, maybe to duck a friend, or for some other reason. Sometimes, however, the number that appears is not familiar -- maybe it's even from a state where you don't know anybody -- and many people pick up those calls thinking it may be something important.

Most of the time, however, it's not a company you know, a long-lost friend, or an entity that has legitimate business with you on the other end of the line. In many cases, it's a robocall, an automated message from a political party, a telemarketing agency, or someone looking to take advantage of you.

How big a problem are robocalls?

Robocalls may seem like a small issue, but they help scammers bilk people out of $350 million every year, according to a press release from Consumers Union, the parent company of Consumer Reports. In most cases, Consumers Union says,  these scammers target seniors and other vulnerable people, but robocalls are a general nuisance with over 3.5 million complaints about them filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2015.

"Almost half of these calls occurred after the consumer requested that the caller stop contacting them," wrote Consumers Union. "Robocalls have become so rampant that complaints about violations of the Do Not Call registry doubled between 2010 and 2015."

Ethan Garr, vice president of product for TelTech Systems, which makes TrapCall, an app that lets people see who is calling while offering them spam protection, told The Motley Fool in an email interview that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

"The Robocall problem has grown out of control to the point where many people have literally stopped answering their phones," he wrote. "The constant annoyance is certainly a real issue, but it's further compounded by the fact that many of these calls seek to defraud or steal identities from consumers." 

These are calls that could be prevented and now Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has sent a letter to AT&T (T -1.83%),, CenturyLink (LUMN 4.20%), Frontier Communications (FTR), Level 3 Communications (LVLT), Sprint (S), T-Mobile (TMUS -0.50%), U.S. Cellular (USM -3.33%), and Verizon (VZ -0.51%), urging them to offer their customers free tools to block unwanted robocalls.

What is the FCC doing?

Wheeler's letter to the companies listed above calls on them to respond in 30 days with a plan to offer free tools to block robocalls to their customers. The chairman detailed his actions in a post on the FCC blog.

I have sent letters to the CEOs of major wireless and wireline phone companies calling on them to offer call-blocking services to their customers now -- at no cost to you. Consumers want and deserve more control over the calls they receive. I have also sent letters to intermediary carriers that connect robocallers to the consumer's phone company, reminding them of their responsibility to help facilitate the offering of blocking technologies.

Wheeler also called on the carriers and the various industry standards groups they are part of to speed up "development and deployment of technical standards that would prevent spoofing of caller ID and thus make blocking technologies more effective, as was done in the battle against spam years ago." 

The chairman also noted that Congress has directed the FCC to "pursue regulatory solutions to crack down on unwanted robocalls."

"Robocalls are currently the number one complaint the FCC receives from consumers," Wheeler wrote. "Whenever and wherever Congress and the courts give us the authority, the Commission will push hard for strong, pro-consumer limits to robocalls and other unwanted calls."

How has the industry responded?

AT&T, which has previously fought efforts to block robocalls, responded to Wheeler's letter by acknowledging the problem and saying that its CEO, Randall Stephenson, will help lead the solution. Stephenson has, according to a company blog post, agreed to chair a new Robocalling Strike Force, "the mission of which will be to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions to abate the proliferation of robocalls and to make recommendations to the FCC on the role government can play in this battle."

That sounds cooperative, but when it comes to phone companies and self-regulation, it's best to be a bit skeptical. In this case, AT&T and the rest of the industry have no reason to be difficult. Helping customers block unwanted robocalls appears easily doable. It does not seem like the industry profits from these calls, so it should comply with Wheeler's wishes.