Congress isn't going far enough to combat robocalls
© Greg Nash

Congress is finally on the verge of passing legislation to stem the national epidemic of robocalls, and not a moment too soon.

In June 2019, the average American received over 13 robocalls.

Many of these are unwanted intrusions, with callers hawking everything from low-interest loans and credit card debt forgiveness to discounted vacations.

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According to a November 2018 HarrisX survey of U.S. adults, 80 percent have received at least one unsolicited phone call from a telemarketer on their cell phones or smartphones.

And the problem will only get worse; a staggering half of all calls made to people in the U.S. are projected to be spam this year.

These calls are a form of digital pollution — costing us time and money, violating our privacy, and degrading trust in the communications and technology networks upon which we  increasingly depend.

Although the “Stopping Bad Robocalls Act” – which passed the House by a 429-3 vote this month – would be a welcome first step, Congress needs to go further. To understand why, it’s important to understand how we got here and why the current enforcement regime is flawed.

A decade ago, most telemarketing came from legitimate businesses. As a result, stopping automated sales calls was fairly easy. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched the National Do Not Call List, which removes registered numbers from for-profit business call directories, and threatened fines for businesses that called consumers on the list. While the Do Not Call List doesn’t physically block business calls to a specific number, it makes it easier for the FTC to levy fines or launch lawsuits based on consumer complaints.

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By 2007, 72 percent of Americans had registered for the Do Not Call List, and 77 percent of these people said the action had reduced the number of unwanted sales calls they received. But technological advances have now made it easy for fraudulent criminal groups to flood the system with calls, and the number of robocall-related complaints to the FTC increased from 3.4 million to 4.5 million between 2016 and 2017—an uptick of 32 percent.

In November 2018, less than half (46 percent) of American adults reported being registered with the National Do Not Call List—a distinct drop from the 72 percent sign-up rate of 2007.  The culprit? Americans have lost confidence in its effectiveness for spam prevention.

The “Stopping Bad Robocalls Act” would mark a welcome shift in the federal government’s approach to enforcement, which today relies on overstaffed federal agencies to police an impossibly high volume of robocalls after they have been made. Under the regime envisioned under this bill, there would be new regulations around the use of artificial call messaging and automatic dialing systems, and more responsibility would fall on the telecom carriers to stop robocalling at the source by requiring carriers to adopt caller ID authentication within 18 months of the law’s passage.

But Congress should also consider two additional steps to give a new robocall enforcement regime real teeth.

Congress and the FTC need to work together to evaluate telecom carriers’ robocall-blocking performance, and they should punish those that fail to perform. Fortunately, the evaluation infrastructure required to monitor telecom carrier’s performance already exists. The FTC website’s telemarketing complaint form asks several questions to assess whether reported calls are illegal. To punish poor performing carriers, the FTC should simply request the name of the carrier on the device that was illegally called. It can then fine carriers — a dime per call — for each illegal call reported on their networks. Considering there were 48 billion robocalls made to the U.S. in 2018, carriers could face as much as $4.8 billion in fines if they fail to step up to the plate.

Although carriers should be incentivized through fines, the responsibility to fight robocalls is not theirs alone. Government agencies must of course be tougher in cracking down on those responsible for illegal robocalls. First, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and FTC should increase fines to punish illegal robocallers. The only way to make harsher penalties effective, however, is to actually collect the fines. From 2013 to 2015, the FCC announced approximately $235 million in fines to communications firms — but as of November 2015 had collected $0. Finally, the FTC should consider implementing criminal penalties on top of civil ones, as Connecticut did in 2018. Illegal robocalling businesses will think twice if their actions can lead to jail time.

Robocalls are more than just an annoyance. Scammers are clogging up our phone lines and ripping off American consumers on an unprecedented scale.

It’s time for Congress and American telecom companies to step up to the plate and stop it.

Aleksandra Srdanovic is a policy analyst for The New Center, which aims to establish the intellectual basis for a viable political center in today’s America. You can view The New Center’s full reform proposal on robocalls at www.newcenter.org.