House panel advances anti-robocall bill

House panel advances anti-robocall bill
© Greg Nash

A House panel on Wednesday voted to advance legislation aimed at protecting U.S. consumers from the billions of illegal robocalls made every year.

The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act had accrued 152 co-sponsors and passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee, 49-0.

The bipartisan legislation takes aim at the illegal spam calls, often from scammers seeking to collect personal information on vulnerable consumers, by toughening up the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ability to crack down on the scourge.

It would require telephone carriers to implement technology that verifies caller identity without charging customers an extra fee.

The measure would also give the FCC more time to investigate and punish illegal robocalling operations, require the agency to pare down the list of companies that are allowed to use robocalling services, and raise the penalty for illegal robocallers to $10,000 per violation from $1,500.

A bipartisan amendment passed by the committee would establish a "hospital robocall protection group" to issue best practices for dealing with robocallers posing as hospitals, seeking to pull sensitive medical information from patients.

The act would additionally require the FCC to submit evidence of robocall violations to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for criminal prosecution and initiate a proceeding to protect customers from “one-ring” scams, which occur when fraudulent calls only ring once, encouraging the recipient to call back the number and potentially rack up fees.

"This bill ... is an important step to cut down on harassing, abusive robocalls," Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PallonePharma execs say FDA will not lower standards for coronavirus vaccine Dem chairmen urge CMS to prevent nursing homes from seizing stimulus payments Federal watchdog finds cybersecurity vulnerabilities in FCC systems MORE (D-N.J.) said at the markup on Wednesday. "It's been a great bipartisan effort to get the bill to this point today."

"I look forward to having the full House vote on our bill soon," he added.

Rep. Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleHillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick House Democrats pressure Facebook oversight board to address racist, voter suppression content Hillicon Valley: Facebook civil rights audit finds 'serious setbacks' | Facebook takes down Roger Stone-affiliated accounts, pages | State and local officials beg Congress for more elections funds MORE (D-Pa.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce technology subcommittee, said robocallers are expected to dial up people in the U.S. 60 billion times next year. He said the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act could "help seriously reduce the number of robocalls consumers receive."

The Senate last month voted 97-1 in favor of a similar anti-robocall bill that would also promote call authentication and blocking, and help coordinate enforcement to increase prosecution of illegal robocallers.

The similarity of the House and Senate bills has offered some optimism that the first anti-robocall bill could be signed into law as soon as this year.

Federal, state and local authorities have been working in concert to crack down on the spike in illegal robocalls. Some estimates have put the number of robocalls in the U.S. in 2018 at 26.3 billion, a 46 percent increase from the year before.

The FCC, meanwhile, voted last month to allow phone carriers to block suspicious calls by default, though the proposal did not explicitly prevent carriers from charging customers for the service.