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In this Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, photo, Jen Vargas looks at a call log displayed via an AT&T app on her cellphone at her home in Orlando, Fla. The app helps locate and block fraudulent calls although some robocalls still get through. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

NEW YORK - Federal regulators voted Thursday to give phone companies the right to block unwanted calls without getting customers' permission first.

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 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.

Robocalls have increased as cheap software makes it easy to make mass calls. Scammers don't care if you've added your number to the government's Do Not Call list, and enforcement is negligible. There are 5 billion per month in the U.S., according to call-blocker YouMail. That works out to 14 calls per person.

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 also 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. Royal Credit Union, a small Midwestern bank, worries that widespread call-blocking would make it harder for their fraud alerts and low-balance warnings to reach customers.

The rules will let consumers "opt out" and ask their phone company not to block anything.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, criticized the agency Thursday for not requiring that call-blocking services be made free.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai believes phone companies will have an incentive to step up and offer these services for free.

"These robocalls that are being placed on their own networks are a hassle and a cost for them to handle," Pai said in an interview.

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