The bipartisan legislation expanded the power of the Federal Communications Commission to deter spam calls and reinforced the responsibility of individual phone companies to protect their own consumers.
“With this legislation, phone companies will be required to give all consumers meaningful new protections against these calls and Americans will finally get some relief from the ringing telephone,” Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst with Consumer Reports, told The Associated Press.
However, while consumers may receive fewer spam calls in 2020, they won’t disappear overnight or entirely, she explained.
The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, or TRACED Act, increases fines on spam robocallers from $1,500 to as much as $10,000 per illegal call. It also requires phone companies speed up their adaptation of “call authentication technologies” to verify that incoming calls are legitimate before ever reaching consumers, a point Mahoney said is a “big victory.”
“The key is requiring these phone companies to help stop the calls before they reach the consumer and do it at no additional charge,” she told The AP.
While consumers can buy software like Hiya and YouMail to help weed out the billions of robocalls that Americans collectively receive each month on cellphones, this new legislation thrusts the responsibility on service providers to block those calls from ever reaching consumers.
The also requires the Federal Communications Commission and service providers to develop a system which informs customers when they’re receiving a “spoofed” call — when the caller ID is made to look like it’s coming from the same area code, a well-known agency, such as the Internal Revenue Service or company. That system, however, will not work for home phones connected to copper landlines, so the measure calls on the FCC and phone companies to find an alternative for those customers.
Another key takeaway from the new legislation is that it allows the FCC four years to intervene and collect fines after an illegal robocall takes place instead of only one, as with previous legislation. The additional time may prove helpful. According to the Wall Street Journal, the FCC collected only 0.003 percent of the fines it imposed between 2015 and early 2019.
The FCC is also now required do more to try to protect hospitals because robocalls can divert staffers’ attention when they appear to come from inside the hospital.
Beyond robocalls, the law also directs the FCC to create new rules that will help protect subscribers from receiving unwanted texts too.
Faking caller ID numbers and placing automated telemarketing calls to consumers without their written permission is already illegal in the U.S., but enforcing their subsequent fines has come with hurdles. While U.S.-based robocalls are easier to trace, many of the robocalls that Americans receive originate from overseas, and Consumer Reports says those will likely continue without sufficient interruption.
While Mahoney praises the final legislation overall, she told The AP that robocallers may exploit some protection gaps that were lost between the House and Senate versions — such as a mandate to clarify that the consumer give or withdraw consent to telemarketers.
Since it was first introduced in November 2018, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., championed the bill along with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. It passed Congress in 2019 with overwhelming bipartisan support: 417-3 in the House and 97-1 in the Senate.
The law going into effect represents a rare, bipartisan victory in a Congress otherwise paralyzed by partisan politics and impeachment. Thune took to Twitter Tuesday morning to share the news.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also issued a congratulatory statement.
“Specifically, I am glad that the agency now has a longer statute of limitations during which we can pursue scammers and I welcome the removal of a previously required warning we had to give to unlawful robocallers before imposing tough penalties,” Pai said.
The legislation comes after Americans’ phones rang 5 billion times in the month of November due to robocalls alone — almost 2,000 calls per second — according to a May report by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The report also estimated that nearly half of all calls to cell phones are scam robocalls.(MORE: Lawmakers, tech industry look to thwart robocalls)
“American families deserve control over their communications, and this legislation will update our laws and regulations to stiffen penalties, increase transparency, and enhance government collaboration to stop unwanted solicitation,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement Monday night, when the president signed the legislation.
However, while some experts predict that as phone companies put more tools in place to combat robocalls, scammers will find new ways to reach victims. To prevent that, the FCC in December 2019 launched a study on blocking robocall services and their effectiveness.
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