New FCC Rule Aims to Kill Spam Texts at the Source

B4LLS/Getty Images

Additional proposals would give consumers more options, such as adding text messages to the Do-Not-Call registry.

The Federal Communications Commission is issuing a new rule requiring telecom carriers to block spam texts from senders added to a national list of offenders, while proposing a set of additional rules that would put more onus on carriers to stop these messages and include text message options on the federal Do-Not-Call registry.

The new rule going into effect, and additional proposed rules, come as marketers and fraudsters continue to barrage consumers with unwanted text messages—a practice that has shown to be more problematic than spam phone calls.

“While some text messages may present similar problems as unwanted calls—they invade consumer privacy and are vehicles for consumer fraud and identity theft—they also present harms beyond robocalls that can exacerbate the problem of such scams,” according to a FCC report on the impending rule and proposed additions.

The report notes text scams are fundamentally different than phone scams in important ways, including the fact that most users will read a text message before discarding it as spam, versus simply not answering a voice call and ignoring a voice message.

Texts also provide a vehicle for malware through malicious links, creating additional issues.

“We are therefore, for the first time, requiring all mobile wireless providers to block certain text messages that are highly likely to be illegal, so that all subscribers have a basic level of protection,” the report states.

The first step will be to add offending numbers to the Do-Not-Originate list, which telecom network carriers will use to block illegal spam from the source. Originating telecom providers—the carriers used by the offending senders in any given instance—will be required to block any messages from senders on the DNO list “without requiring consumer opt in or opt out,” according to the new rule.

“These are texts that no reasonable consumer would wish to receive because they are highly likely to be illegal,” the FCC wrote.

There will be a timely mechanism for unblocking senders that were added by mistake. In a footnote, the report points out that not all robotexts are unwanted or illegal, such as opt-in messaging services.

“Text messages may be illegal because they violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, such as by being made with an autodialer and being sent without the necessary consent, because the number displayed is illegally spoofed, which violates the Truth in Caller ID Act, or for other reasons, particularly if they are fraudulent,” the report states.

While the mandatory blocking rule is going into effect, the FCC is looking to take it further and has asked for feedback on expanding this blocking responsibility to include terminating providers—the carrier responsible for delivering the message or call to a user’s device.

“Where texts are clearly illegal, and where the Commission has put providers on notice of the illegal texts, we believe mobile wireless providers have no legitimate reason to transmit the texts. We therefore seek comment on extending this approach, which the Commission has in place for call blocking, to text blocking,” the report states.

In a request for public comment posted Friday to the Federal Register, the commission is asking for expert feedback on whether such a rule would differ significantly from a similar requirement for terminating providers to block illegal voice calls and what the potential cost would be to carriers, among other questions.

The additional proposed rules suggest covering text messages under the existing Do-Not-Call registry—a government-managed list to which consumers can add their phone numbers to prohibit telemarketers from contacting them.

The new rule set would also include a provision to protect consumers who signed up to receive automated texts from one organization from subsequently receiving “calls and texts from multiple, sometimes hundreds, of sellers and potential fraudsters” without marketers gaining additional consent.

“Our decision to require blocking here, rather than simply rely on industry’s voluntary efforts to block, as we have done in the past with certain call blocking, is in part the result of the heightened risk of text messages as both annoyance and vehicles for fraud,” the commission wrote.