Federal regulators voted Thursday to give phone companies the right to block unwanted calls without getting customers' permission first, the AP reports. The Federal Communications Commission's move could make call-blocking widespread and help consumers dodge annoying robocalls, which have exploded into a problem that pesters Americans on the level of billions of calls a month. One caveat: Phone companies don't actually have to do anything, and they could start charging you if they do—just as they now charge for some caller ID features and other extras. The FCC expects phone companies to offer these tools for free, but it doesn't require them to. The rules will let consumers "opt out" and ask their phone company not to block anything.
The rise in debt collectors, telemarketers and, most worrisome, fraudsters ringing up consumers' phones have led the FCC and Congress to push phone companies to do more. The companies have been slow to act against such automated calls on their own. Thursday's FCC vote could potentially be a powerful counter against unwanted calls. While call-blocking apps already exist, you have to turn them on or ask for them. Now, along with clarifying that both wireless and landline companies can block unwanted calls without asking customers first, the FCC said that wireless carriers are allowed to block all callers who aren't on a customer's contact list. You would have to request that from your phone company. On the flip side, the measure might inadvertently lead to blocking of automated calls about flight changes, school closings, and appointment reminders, Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly warned. (Much more on the subject here.)