Senate panel advances bill penalizing illegal robocalls

A Senate panel on Wednesday advanced legislation that would levy a hefty fine on illegal robocalls, the latest congressional effort to crack down on the billions of unwanted calls that irritate U.S. consumers every year.

Lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill in 26-0 vote. The measure's co-sponsors include Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharPolice killing in Minneapolis puts new scrutiny on Biden pick Cortez Masto says she's not interested in being Biden VP Voting rights, public health officials roll out guidelines to protect voters from COVID-19 MORE (D-Minn.), who is running for president, and Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranMemorial Day during COVID-19: How to aid our country's veterans Pass the Primary Care Enhancement Act Hillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns MORE (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee.

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The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, introduced by Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill MORE (R-S.D.) and Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOVERNIGHT ENERGY: New documents show EPA rolled back mileage standards despite staff, WH concerns | Land management bureau grants 75 royalty rate cuts for oil and gas | EPA employees allege leadership interference with science in watchdog survey EPA's Wheeler grilled by Democrats over environmental rollbacks amid COVID-19 Markey says EPA administrator should apologize to minorities for coronavirus response MORE (D-Mass.), would give the federal government the authority to slap offenders with fines of up to $10,000 per call.

It also would give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) more time to bring charges against companies behind illegal robocalls, lengthening the statute of limitations from one to three years. The telecom industry would be required under the legislation to take stronger action against “spoofing,” a practice where robocallers make it look like they are calling from a number in the recipient's area code.

“As nearly half of all calls to mobile phones this year will be robocalls, this legislation can’t get signed into law soon enough,” Thune said during the hearing. “The TRACED Act is a bipartisan act that targets the worst of the worst.”

Markey called the vote “historic.”

“Today, the committee did just take a historic step towards finally ending the deluge of unwanted and intrusive robocalls bombarding millions of consumers across our country on a daily basis,” Markey said.

Lawmakers during the previous Congress held three hearings and passed 13 bills aimed at curtailing robocalls, but the measure advanced by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday is the most significant piece of legislation to address the issue.

U.S. residents received an estimated 26 billion robocalls last year, with a quarter of those from illegal robocallers, according to an industry estimate cited by The Washington Post on Tuesday.

The Federal Trade Commission and FCC have said the most complaints they receive pertain to “unwanted and illegal robocalls.”

But critics say the two agencies have not done enough to address the issue, as the number of unwanted calls has climbed significantly in recent years.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last month warned phone service providers that if they don't crack down on "spoofed" caller IDs from robocallers, the agency will “consider regulatory intervention."

Updated at 10:21 a.m.