By Brian Murphy

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The average American has received more than 100 robocalls already this year: annoying and unwanted calls, scammers looking to exploit vulnerable populations, and all manner of alerts.

Twelve of the nation’s largest phone companies, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Charter and Comcast, will implement initiatives to prevent robocalls and encourage more enforcement as part of an agreement with the nation’s 51 attorneys general.

North Carolina AG Josh Stein led the group along with attorneys general in New Hampshire and Indiana. New Hampshire AG Gordon MacDonald and Arkansas AG Leslie Rutledge announced the deal Thursday afternoon in Washington.

“Robocalls are a scourge. At best, annoying. At worse, scamming people out of their hard-earned money,” Stein said in a statement. “By signing on to these principles, industry leaders are taking new steps to keep your phone from ringing with unwanted calls.”

All three attorneys general said robocalls are the top issue they hear about from residents, including ones who tell stories of being scammed out of their life savings. Stein said his office put a petition about the issue on its website and tens of thousands of people signed it.

“It is visceral,” he told McClatchy in an interview.

“I hope one day we will be able to push a button every time they call and charge them a fee to be paid toward our phone bill,” said Jim Hood, Mississippi’s attorney general, in a statement.

The other phone companies involved in the agreement are Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Consolidated, Frontier, US Cellular and Winstream. Other providers are encouraged to join the agreement, which is nonbinding.

In July, North Carolinians received 166.4 million robocalls, an average of 19.6 per person, according to the call-blocking company YouMail. In 2018, Americans dealt with nearly 48 billion robocalls, according to the company.

“Beyond the scams and the spam, robocalls are having other damaging impacts,” MacDonald said, recounting the story of a New Hampshire mother on a liver donor waiting list who didn’t answer a call because she didn’t recognize the number. “It’s changing the way we engage with our telephones. We don’t answer the phone. There can be consequences for legitimate calls that are missed.”

To prevent illegal robocalls, the phone companies will implement call-blocking technology at no cost to customers, allow customers to access free, easy-to-use call blocking and labeling tools, implement technology to authenticate calls are coming from a valid source and monitor networks for robocall traffic.

To help with enforcement, the companies agreed to investigate and take action against suspicious callers and trace the origins of illegal robocalls.

Patrick Halley of USTelecom, which represents telecommunications companies, said the providers see a benefit in working with the government to weed out these calls, saying provider networks are being abused and customers are not picking up legitimate calls.

“We do this because our customers demand it,” Halley said at the announcement event in D.C. “If we reduce the ability of criminals, it increases the confidence of consumers. People aren’t answering calls anymore. That’s not good for us, that’s not good for consumers.”

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