Lawmakers weigh challenges in fighting robocalls

Lawmakers on Thursday reviewed regulators' efforts to cut down on illegal robocalls during a hearing of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications.

The hearing comes on the heels of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) first-ever report on robocalls and as lawmakers push bipartisan legislation to crack down on the problem.

Subcommittee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns GOP senators divided over approach to election security McSally on Moore running for Senate again: 'This place has enough creepy old men' MORE (R-S.D.), who has introduced legislation, highlighted the challenge.

“Solving these issues is going to require a variety of stakeholders to get together,” Thune said.

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The February FCC report offered a stark warning on the persistence of robocalls, or unwanted telemarketing messages. It found that U.S. phones were hit by 48 billion robocalls last year, and the report predicted that almost 50 percent of all calls made to U.S. cell phones this year will be spam.

Robocalls have long frustrated lawmakers and consumers. The report highlighted that the number of complaints over illegal robocalls has been increasing, jumping from 172,000 complaints in 2015 to 232,000 complaints in 2018.

Senators heard from Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson (R), who discussed the legal challenges in bringing robocallers to justice.

"One of the challenges whether or not it is a civil penalty or criminal penalty is the ability to get our hands around these people ... to actually get them in a headlock," he said.

Lawmakers hope to take action this Congress.

Thune and Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySenate set to bypass Iran fight amid growing tensions Young activists press for change in 2020 election Hillicon Valley: House panel advances election security bill | GOP senator targets YouTube with bill on child exploitation | Hicks told Congress Trump camp felt 'relief' after release of Clinton docs | Commerce blacklists five Chinese tech groups MORE (D-Mass.) reintroduced bipartisan legislation this year to crack down on robocalls through the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Defense (TRACED) Act. The bill would improve enforcement policies and have agencies better coordinate on tackling robocalls.

Thune said the bill was needed to prevent telemarketers from preying on those who are most vulnerable, including seniors who are less technologically savvy.

“A credible threat of criminal prosecution is necessary and appropriate for those who knowingly flout laws to prey upon the elderly and other vulnerable populations,” he said in opening remarks.

“These improvements will not stop every illegal robocall, but they will go a long way in making it safe to answer your phone again,” Thune added.

The bill also requires phone companies to validate that calls are coming from the actual listed phone number to better detect and block robocalls. And it enhances efforts to trace back calls to find those responsible.

Peterson, who spearheaded a letter from all 50 state attorneys general; the Washington, D.C., attorney general and attorneys general from three U.S. territories in favor of the bill, voiced his strong support.

The witnesses testifying before the panel, including Peterson; Kevin Rupy, a partner at Wiley Rein LLP, and Margot Saunders, counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, highlighted that addressing robocalls will take a comprehensive approach.

"There is no single silver bullet to the robocall problem," Rupy said.

Saunders pushed for tougher criminal penalties to deter scammers.

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Democrats call for restraint, oversight as Trump reportedly calls back Iranian strike Democrats mark World Refugee Day MORE (D-Hawaii) also highlighted the role in class action lawsuits in combating robocalls.

Schatz noted that the FCC fined robocallers $208 million but only collected $7,000 last year.

"As unpopular as they are, it is the class actions that are driving compliance, and that's why the major industries are pushing the FCC to change the rules so more of these class actions will be available," Saunders said.

Saunders said the fines recovered are low because often those prosecuted are at the lower ranks of the scam.

"The way to actually increase enforcement is to go after the people who are paying them for those leads," Saunders said.

Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnHorse abuse for ribbons and prizes has to stop YouTube may move children's content to separate app Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills MORE (R-Tenn.) asked if legitimate businesses who needed to reach customers might be restricted by new robocall legislation.

Ruby said stopping illegal calls would make it easier for real businesses to do their work.

"It can help authenticate legitimate calls so that legitimate businesses and individuals can make their legitimate calls while stopping the illegal robocalls.”

This story was updated on April 12 at 10:55 a.m.