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Legal, Regulatory, and Privacy Issues

Federal government, lawmakers aim to tackle robocall nuisance

The FCC has issued rules enabling phone service providers to opt-in consumers to avoid robocalls


The various rules aim at blocking robocalls, and the use of technology to prevent caller ID spoofing by robocallers.

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If you are among the millions of consumers who have been plagued by robocalls, there may be some relief on the way.

With U.S. authorities firing away on multiple cylinders against the nuisance of robocalls, Americans may soon get some respite from this scourge.

For one, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has launched an initiative that’s aimed at curbing the operations of outfits responsible for making more than a billion robocalls – including those trying to get consumers to sign up for services such as credit card interest rate reductions.

Additionally, a slew of large telecommunication companies, including AT&T and Verizon, have teamed up with the attorneys general of all 50 states to block robocalls on their networks and work with law enforcement agencies to find out where they originate.

The FTC’s so-called “operation call it quits” also focuses on educating consumers, and promoting technology that blocks robocalls and fights caller identity spoofing, whereby a caller tricks you by manipulating their caller identification information to show a number different from their actual number.

The FTC is partnering with 25 state, federal and local agencies in this endeavor.

“Every year, our office gets more consumer complaints about unwanted robocalls than just about any other issue,” said Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill in a news release. “At best, these calls represent a nuisance for families just wanting to enjoy peace and privacy without needless disturbances interrupting their routines. At worst, they represent scams that successfully steal people’s identities or hard-earned money.”

See related:  How to report and protect yourself from credit card fraud and identity theft

Tips to tackle robocalls

The FCC and the FTC have some tips for consumers to tackle the robocalling issue:

  1. Avoid answering calls from unknown numbers.
  2. Your caller ID could show a local number, using ID spoofing, to trick you.
  3. If you answer a call and you are asked to strike a button to stop getting such calls, just hang up.
  4. Don’t answer any questions, particularly those that call for a “yes” response.
  5. Don’t provide any personal information, such as your mother’s maiden name.
  6. If you hear from a company or government agency, be suspicious. Typically, these sorts of callers will first send a letter in the mail, particularly if they are asking for money.

Firing on multiple fronts

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about 2.5 billion illegal robocalls were made just in March 2019. The federal agency places a $3 billion annual value on the time consumers lose to these calls. And there’s also the additional financial loss from fraud tied to these calls.

In its own effort to fight robocalls, the FCC has issued a ruling permitting phone service providers to block robocalls so that consumers don’t receive them. Using analytical tools, phone service providers could take action to block these calls unless consumers specifically opt out of this protection. Consumers also have the option not to accept calls from any number that does not appear on a “white list” they provide.

Additionally, the FCC is looking into a proposed rule to require phone companies to adopt caller identification authentication to deal with spoofing of caller ID, if they haven’t taken up this technology by year-end.

The FCC is also inviting comments on whether to give voice service providers a safe harbor against blocking calls on which they cannot authenticate the caller’s identification, due to spoofing, and also for blocking “unsigned” calls.

See related: Top 10 phone scams to watch out for

Pending legislative efforts

Various pending legislative efforts also aim to tackle the robocall menace. And the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED) was signed into law by President Trump on Dec. 30, 2019. This legislation will:

  • Allow the FCC to raise the fines it can levy on those who make illegal robocalls, as well as extend the statutory time frame to sue violators.
  • Require phone service providers to use caller authentication technologies.
  • Ask the FCC to set up rules around when a phone company could block calls using caller authentication technology, as well as a safe harbor for phone companies that mistakenly block calls as a result of relying on the call authentication technology.
  • Set up an interagency working group (which could include the FCC, the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Department of Justice) to look into better enforcement against robocalls and make a report to Congress.

The pending legislations that attempt to tackle the robocall nuisance include the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, the Stop Robocalls Act, the HANGUP Act, the Robocop Act, and the Protecting American Consumers from Robocalls Act.

Broadening the scope of Telephone Consumer Protection Act

Commenting on the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act legislation, Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) noted in a media release, “Robocalls plague voters of all political stripes, so we are especially pleased to see a bipartisan effort on this bill. We hope this is the first of several positive steps that Congress will take.”

The NCLC noted this legislation goes farther than the TRACED legislation by extending call authentication and call blocking requirements not just to the largest phone companies, but also to those providing service in rural areas.

The legislation would require the FCC to reinterpret some provisions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to cover the more current systems that enable nuisance calls and text messages.

The legislation would also call for consumers to actively give permission to receive such communications, except in the case of an emergency. This would enable blocking of nuisance calls, including those from telemarketers and debt collectors. It would also require phone companies to initiate opt-out call blocking without charging consumers for this service.

Additionally, it would set up a database that callers could check to ensure that a number has not been reassigned.

Consumer advocates – including the NCLC, the National Association of Consumer Advocates, and the Consumer Federation of America – have expressed their support for this legislation in a letter to Congress.

Concern about potential overreach

Although they are generally supportive of these rule-making efforts, there is some concern among debt collectors and the financial sector the rules could be inadvertently overreaching.

In emailed comments, the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals noted that “unclear compliance expectations” around the TCPA could leave businesses open to “frivolous class action litigation.”

See related:  Poll: Credit card fraud alerts surge, false alarms still common

And on the FCC’s robocall effort, the debt collectors’ association “is concerned that the ruling does not adequately address consumer choice and the wide swath of legal calls that will be swept into requirements to opt-out rather than opt-in.”

An industry coalition that represents a broad group of businesses, including the American Bankers Association and the Consumer Bankers Association, has also noted that the “Stopping bad robocalls” effort might inadvertently prevent consumers from receiving calls they should not miss.

“Consumers are also harmed when they do not receive time-sensitive calls and text messages from legitimate businesses,” the group wrote in a letter to Congress. “Fraud alerts, data breach notifications, reminders to renew prescriptions or schedule a visit to the doctor, notifications of power outages and automobile recall notices are consumer-benefitting calls that must be placed immediately to be of value to the recipient.”

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