Will Congress act to stop robocalls?

Lately, Congress has been known more for all its partisan gridlock and infighting than for getting things done. But lawmakers have leapt at the chance to provide relief from robocalls to their constituents. The passage of the bipartisan Traced Act in the Senate was soon followed by the near unanimous approval of the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act in the House. The Senate bill provided an important step in protecting us from spoofed calls with fake caller IDs, but the House bill takes the fight to the next level by requiring rules that will actually stop the abusive and unwanted robocalls from being made in the first place. To preserve the value of the national telephone system, we need the provisions of both bills signed into law.

American consumers receive more than 4 billion robocalls each month. These calls ran the gamut from wanted pharmacy reminders to outright scams, but it is calls to collect debts and market products and services sold by businesses that ring consumers with the most consistency. The YouMail Robocall Index shows the top 20 sources of robocalls to United States area codes are creditors or debt collectors collecting on debts, including major corporations such as Capital One, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Comcast. The House bill offers relief to consumers by strengthening the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to ensure these callers must have our consent before dialing us and must stop calling us when we say to.

Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a 1991 privacy law that cracks down on unwanted robocalls, calls to mobile phones made using an automated dialing system without express consent from the recipient are prohibited. In other words, if you did not tell the caller they could call you, then they cannot call you. If you provided consent unknowingly, as consent is often buried in the fine print of consumer contracts, or you change your mind, you can revoke consent to make the calls stop. If they do not, you can file a lawsuit and hold the callers accountable in court.

The interpretation and reach of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, however, has been both reinforced and challenged in courts across the country, with the definition of an “autodialer” emerging as a key point of contention. Robocallers who use calling lists, such as lists of customers, and who use live persons to communicate with consumers, insist that their calls should be exempt from the rules concerning autodialed calls. This is despite the fact that these callers use technology allowing them to dial hundreds of calls each and every minute. Major American industries are urging Congress to allow these unstoppable calls without consent.

New complaint data from the Federal Trade Commission “do not call” list shows that more than 30 percent of the 17 million robocall complaints filed last year concerned autodialed calls that connected to a real person. Congress should ensure that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act is not interpreted to make any exceptions for these types of intrusive calls.

The Federal Communications Commission has been tasked with clarifying the regulations and has opened them up for public comment by soliciting responses from industry lobbyists, public advocates, and consumers alike, but so far has failed to clarify them. While strongly addressing unwanted robocalls seems like a total no brainer to consumers plagued by them, powerful and financial interests are behind efforts to keep the floodgates open. Arguing that consumers value and appreciate calls from debt collectors and telemarketers and that the rules to limit them are too burdensome, associations representing banks, creditors, community credit unions, and other debt collectors have seen success in inaction.

With the right to control who calls them and when in flux, Americans are looking to Republican Roger Wicker and Democrat Maria Cantwell, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee respectively, to urge their Senate colleagues to keep key parts of the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act in the House for the final consensus robocall fix. Sailing not one but two strong bills through Congress has certainly put robocallers on notice, but hanging up on them once and for all means strengthening and clarifying the rules to protect consumers and hold bad actors accountable. Allowing loopholes that Wall Street corporations are urging will not resolve the long running plague of unwanted robocalls.

Margot Saunders is senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center.

Tags Business Congress Government Maria Cantwell Roger Wicker Technology

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