robocall blocker

Some robocalls are legitimate, and additional prosecutions don’t prevent more bad actors from popping up

In a rare bipartisan achievement, Congress has moved to combat the scourge of robocalls inundating Americans.

Just don’t expect the phone to stop ringing any time soon.

The robocall law, which passed both the House and Senate by wide margins, prods phone companies to cut off illegal marketers or scammers before the phone rings by spotting suspect traffic.

The legislation also boosts penalties for breakers of telephone consumer-protection laws and mandates that government agencies and companies work more closely together in stemming robocalls. The bill must still be signed by President Trump, which is expected given the near-unanimous support by both parties.

Lawmakers, industry and consumer groups say the bill represents significant steps forward, but they also concede that the calls are likely to continue—a reflection of how a lasting solution continues to elude the companies and regulators that control the telephone system.

“This isn’t going to eliminate every robocall,” said Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), one of the bill’s prime sponsors, in an interview. “But we think it will go a long way toward getting at some of these not only annoying nuisance calls, but more importantly a lot of scam artists that prey on vulnerable populations.”

Even the new law’s name—the TRACED Act, for Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence—makes clear the goal is to deter robocallers rather than eradicate them.

Lawmakers have previously tried and failed to stop robocalls, most prominently with the opening of the National Do Not Call Registry about 15 years ago. (Criminals ignore the list of off-limits numbers.)

Implementing this latest anti-robocall law is likely to take years, telecom industry executives and robocall experts say. New consumer-protection rules will take months to craft and longer to implement. Lawmakers also left aspects of the problem for future study, calling for eight new reports and two new working groups.

Some of the billions of robocalls Americans receive are legitimate, such as calls from a pharmacy telling a customer a prescription is ready. The calls are illegal when used for scams, or when they violate consumer-protection rules such as those against calling someone without their permission using a recorded message.

Here is a look at what the TRACED Act does, and what it doesn’t do:


What the act does: The Federal Communications Commission now has a longer shot clock to bring a robocall case—up to four years, instead of one or two currently. In an effort to speed up enforcement, the agency also now may take legal action against violators without issuing a warning first, as they have previously been required to do.

The law is designed to push prosecutors to jail violators of telephone consumer-protection laws, recognizing that the government struggles to collect on big-ticket fines from civil litigation. The new law requires the FCC to share evidence of robocall violations with the attorney general, and to disclose how often it does so.

What it doesn’t do: More prosecutions won’t necessarily solve the “Whac-A-Mole” problem: Mass dialing with internet-based technology is so easy that bad actors pop up constantly using new names or locations.

The FCC doesn’t shut robocallers down immediately, instead following an enforcement process that takes months, if not years to play out while authorities gather evidence and make legal filings. On Dec. 12, the agency proposed a roughly $10 million fine for calls that occurred in May 2018. An FCC official said the agency must follow due process.

Call Blocking

What the act does: The FCC must empower phone companies to block more calls without fear of a lawsuit, all while not adding new line items on consumers’ bills. The agency has already written some rules with these goals in mind.

The law also backs new requirements to prevent “spoofing,” a practice where robocallers mask their identity with a faked caller ID. Major phone companies have already promised to use call-authentication technology, known as Stir/Shaken. Under the new law any laggards who don’t adopt this technology would have to show the FCC how they are mitigating robocalls.

What it doesn’t do: It isn’t known yet whether the bill will overcome carriers’ historic fears about blocking legitimate calls. For example, phone companies are loath to stop emergency calls, but those calls can be hard to identify.

Curbing “spoofing” also won’t stop swindlers entirely, experts say. Robocallers could obtain blocks of real phone numbers, which are available for rent, and make millions of calls. The new law leaves this issue for future study and gives the FCC regulatory authority to address it.

Lawmakers also dropped from the final bill a provision clarifying the legal definition of “auto-dialer” technology, the equipment used to make robocalls. Proponents of that provision said it would resolve conflicting court rulings about how businesses can legally contact consumers and ensure robocallers can’t tailor their dialing technology to get around telemarketing rules. Mr. Thune believes the FCC should address this issue, a spokesman said.

Robo Helpers

What the act does: The new law tells the FCC it may publish a list of phone companies found to be facilitating robocalls and “take appropriate enforcement action.” Scammers rely on such companies, paying them fractions of a cent for each call they send through.

What it doesn’t do: Publishing the list isn’t mandatory, and authorities have generally been reluctant to hold phone companies accountable for things their customers do.

In one recent exception, the Federal Trade Commission and Ohio attorney general moved to shut down an internet-based phone company for allegedly participating in a robocall scheme—a first-of-its-kind action.

A senior FCC official said the agency is weighing what it can do when a company is found to be facilitating illegal calls. Options under consideration include taking enforcement action against the firms, or greenlighting phone companies to block calls from problem companies, the official said, without giving a timeline for drafting them.

Originally published December 26, by

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