Lawmakers Renew Push To Curb Unwanted Robocalls

Image courtesy of alexkerhead

In the last few days, legislators in both the House and Senate have once again pushed the issue of nuisance pre-recorded, auto-dialed robocalls back into the spotlight — urging telecom providers to give customers more tools for blocking these calls, and trying to roll back the government’s ability to abuse robocalls for its own debt-collection purposes.

“If robocalls were a disease, they’d be a national epidemic,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) at a press conference on Sunday to discuss the need for mobile and landline providers to give customers more options. “We’d have the best and brightest working to combat the scourge.”

The senator noted that that Federal Trade Commission, which oversees the Do Not Call Registry, receives more than 3.5 million complaints from Americans every year.

[Ed. Note: That is the total number of complaints for all alleged Do Not Call violations/ According to FTC data, robocalls account for around two-thirds of these complaints.]

“If there are 3.5 million complaint calls, you can imagine” how big the problem really is, pointed out Schumer, who confessed that not even he has taken the time to complain about the robocalls that he gets.

“I’ve gotten them from financial institutions, from stores, from so many things… It drives you crazy, especially when you’re having a nice dinner with your family”

Schumer acknowledged that robocalls and complaints did decrease during that brief period about 10 years ago when the Do Not Call Registry was finally up and running, and most people were still primarily using their landlines. But in the years since, new technology has made it easier for robocallers to make huge numbers of calls at once, while also making it more difficult to track down their identity.

While there are millions of numbers on the Do Not Call list, and most non-emergency robocalls to cellphones are illegal without the recipient giving their express permission in advance, many of the most pernicious robocallers simply don’t care because they are not legitimate businesses. Instead, they are scammers trying to commit identity theft or fraud.

“Stop the robocalls, you can stop the scammers too,” said Schumer, who pointed to the existence of technology like Nomorobo, which Time Warner Cable recently added to its phone service, that could be deployed on a larger scale to help consumers block these unwanted, and often illegal calls.

“We’re calling on all major landline and mobile carriers to make robocall-blocking technology available to all consumers,” said Schumer.

Beyond that, once these tools are available, the telecom providers need to alert their customers that they have the tools.

Schumer is also asking the FTC to put pressure on manufacturers to integrate robocall blocking tech in their devices.

“I will introduce legislation in the Senate if the companies don’t do it on their own,” said the senator. “There’s a rotten game of phones going on and it’s giving America a giant headache.”

“Nothing drives phone customers more crazy than robocalls that ring day and night,” said Chuck Bell, our colleague at Consumers Union, who joined Sen. Schumer for yesterday’s press conference. “Over half a million Americans have joined Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign calling on AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink to offer free call-blocking tools to stop unwanted calls. It’s time for the phone companies to take action and provide their customers with the relief they want and deserve.”

Unfortunately, while Schumer and other lawmakers combat nuisance phone calls, the federal government itself is poised to become one of the biggest robocallers.

Last fall, with a government shutdown looming, a rider attached to a must-pass budget bill created a loophole in the Communications Act that exempts the federal debt collection efforts from laws that severely limit the use of robocalls.

Thus, anyone who misses a federal student loan payment, has a federal tax issue, a problem with their home loan through the FHA, or any other debt to the feds, may soon be receiving the very kinds of nuisance calls Schumer is trying to stop — and they’ll be completely legal.

The FCC is, as directed by that rider, currently drafting rules for the government to follow. The deadline for those guidelines is this summer.

Immediately after the rider was passed, Sen. Ed Markey (MA) introduced the HANGUP Act, which would roll back that revision to the Communications Act and close the robocall loophole. Even though that legislation quickly gathered 16 co-sponsors, and the backing of the attorneys general from 25 states — and even though robocalls is one of the few issues that is not currently a partisan issue — the bill has been sitting idle in committee since being introduced.

In hopes of lighting a spark in the House, Representatives Tammy Duckworth (IL) Anna Eshoo (CA) introduced the House version of the HANGUP Act, virtually identical to Markey’s Senate bill.

“For more than 25 years, Congress protected student loan borrowers—and all consumers—from being harassed by debt collectors robocalling their cell phones,” said Congresswoman Duckworth. “I’m disappointed these protections were rolled back behind closed doors, but I’m looking forward to working with Congresswoman Eshoo to restore them.”

What’s particularly dubious about the debt-collection robocall loophole is that the government’s own budget analysis predicts that this exemption will not result in the government collecting any significant amount of debts. In fact, that analysis say the government could lose as much as $500,000 a year.

“The exemption allows private debt collectors to conduct robocalls and send texts to mobile phones for debt owed or guaranteed by the federal government,” said Rep. Eshoo. “The HANGUP Act restores critical protections for consumers by establishing a statutory roadblock to unwanted robocalls and texts.”

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