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New rules needed to crack down on robo-text scams costing consumers billions

Thousands of Illinoisans received this text message last year from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (perhaps you were one of them):

“Contact information seems to be missing or incorrect. Please update now. Visit (link).”

Secretary of State Jesse White quickly warned residents that the text was a scam, which was using his office’s website logos and mastheads to make it seem official while seeking personal information from the targets. Yet, undoubtedly, some recipients fell prey to the trickery.

Unfortunately, millions of Americans are fooled by such scams each year. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 2.2 million Americans reported losses totaling $3.3 billion to digital fraud in 2020 — a 73 percent increase from one year earlier. Of those 2020 fraud reports, 27 percent resulted from a text message and 31 percent from a phone call.

Robokiller, which makes a robocall blocking app, estimates that Americans received 86 billion spam texts in 2021 — 55 percent more than the year before. In fact, spam texts are rapidly overtaking spam phone calls as the preferred method for the digital world’s scam artists. One study found that Illinois is the third-most spam-texted state per capita, with an estimated total of more than 301 million such messages.

Relatively few of these scam targets take the time and effort to report them to federal authorities. Nevertheless, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that it received about 14,000 consumer complaints in 2020 about unwanted text messages — an increase of nearly 146 percent over the previous year.

The problem is what to do about it.

In response to a tidal wave of unwanted robocalls to landline phones, Congress passed a law years ago to establish a no-call list. This enabled Americans to opt-out of such calls, with violators subject to severe fines for disregarding their wishes.

While that law wasn’t perfect, it put scam artists on notice that they could be subject to consequences for their unwanted communications. Unfortunately, no such system is in place to address the more recent advent of billions of robo-text messages. 

That’s why I will soon introduce a bill in Congress to give the FCC the authority it needs to crack down on robo-texters and the many scam artists who have flocked to that method to steal from unsuspecting recipients of their messages.

Among other things, my bill would expand the current restrictions on calls from automatic telephone dialing systems (robocalls) from voice messages to texts, which are far more prevalent today than when the law restricting voice messages was passed. As the technology has changed, so should consumers’ ability to avoid unwanted text messages — many of which consist of “phishing” for personal and financial information.

Recognizing the growing problem, the FCC has recently begun to act. Late last year, Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced that the agency will consider issuing rules to require mobile wireless companies to block illegal text messaging. As the problem grows exponentially, however, the government needs to move faster.

My bill would give the FCC a maximum of 18 months to update its rules in accordance with modern dialing practices and consumer preferences.  It expands the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” to include devices that can store or produce numbers to be texted and to cover devices that automatically dial or text such numbers.

As Americans have moved from landlines and voice messages to cell phones and texts, so too have the scam artists who steal billions each year from consumers. We need to make sure that the government agencies responsible for protecting consumers have the rules and regulations necessary to carry out their important duties. Taxpayers deserve nothing less.

Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Schaumburg, chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on Consumer and Economic Policy. 

Tags fraud

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