Every month, robocalls make up the majority of Do Not Call registry complaints at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FCC estimated that in March 2018 approximately 3 billion robocalls were placed. In an effort to combat these illegal robocalls, the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy & Commerce Committee each held a hearing regarding these illegal robocalls and asked witnesses for ideas on how to combat this rampant problem.
Actions in the Senate
On April 18, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled, “Abusive Robocalls and How We Can Stop Them,” focused on ongoing public and private efforts that have been made to address robocalls, as well as emerging challenges of preventing robocalls. The first panel featured Mr. Adrian Abramovich, who testified about the 2017 FCC action against him, which resulted in a fine of $120 million for illegal spoofing. Throughout the questioning, lawmakers were very clear that one of the FCC’s primary jobs is protecting consumers from illegal robocalls and voiced support for the fines levied on Mr. Abromovich, even though many times Mr. Abramovich invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer the Committee’s questions. In Mr. Abramovich’s brief statements, he did discuss how smaller VoIP providers enable robocalls by specifically marketing that they allow them. Many lawmakers later noted that carriers that allowed and marketed for these types of callers were compromising the privacy of families across America.
The second panel of witnesses to the hearing featured Ms. Lois Greisman, Associate Director of the Marketing Practices Division at the FTC; Ms. Rosemary Harold, Chief of the Enforcement Bureau at the FCC; Mr. Scott Delacourt, a representative of the US Chamber of Commerce; Mr. Kevin Rupy, Vice President of Law and Policy for the US Telecom Association; and Ms. Margot Saunders, Senior Counsel at the National Consumer Law Center. During their testimonies, each of the witnesses described the harm illegal robocalls can have on unsuspecting customers and challenges of preventing these calls. Ms. Greisman noted that the FTC has been asking Congress for over a decade to repeal the common carrier exemption because it impedes the FTC’s ability to provide robust enforcement regarding robocalls. Many of the witnesses agreed that advances in technology have made it more difficult for the government to track down illegal robocallers. Ms. Harold mentioned that the recently passed omnibus includes language that allows the FCC to go after bad actors in other countries, which is a good starting point in preventing illegal robocalls.
During the hearing, Sen. Blumenthal (D-CT), along with five other Democrats, announced the introduction of the Repeated Objectionable Bothering of Consumers of Phones (ROBOCOP) Act. This legislation would direct the FCC to require phone companies to offer free tools to block robocalls and verify that caller ID information is accurate, and authorize the FCC to create a nationwide system to ensure consumers are in control of the calls and texts they receive as well as giving consumers a right of action against carriers that violate the law. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced companion legislation in the House.
Also introduced on April 18 was the Robocall Enforcement Enhancement Act of 2018, by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) along with eleven Democratic cosponsors. The legislation seeks to help the FCC prosecute violations of the automated telemarketing rules by increasing the statute of limitations from one to three years. It also extends the statute of limitations in regards to spoofing, or using false caller ID. There is currently no House companion bill.
Actions in the House
On April 27, the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection held a hearing entitled, “Do Not Call: Combating Robocalls and Caller ID Spoofing.” This hearing featured testimony from Mr. Aaron Foss, Founder of Nomorobo; Mr. Ethan Garr, Chief Product Officer of RoboKiller; Mr. Scott Hambuchen, Executive Vice President of Technology and Solution Development for First Orion Corp.; and Ms. Maureen Mahoney, Policy Analyst at Consumers Union. Mr. Garr and Mr. Foss both discussed the challenges their companies faced in preventing robocalls and getting consumers and carriers to use their technology. The witnesses all agreed that Congress should play a role in ensuring that the FCC has the tools it needs to prevent illegal robocalls.
During the hearing, Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) mentioned that he had released the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act discussion draft, which would give the FCC more enforcement tools to use against robocallers. He also announced the introduction of Rep. Anna Eshoo’s (D-CA) HANGUP Act, which would require federal debt collectors to get consumers’ permission before robocalling them to collect on a debt, as well as a discussion draft of the CEASE Robocalls Act introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), which would lift the common carrier exemption in the FTC Act to permit the FTC to bring enforcement actions against telecom carriers and VoIP providers when they engage in deceptive practices with respect to illegal robocalls.
Lawmakers at these hearings urged the FCC to continue enforcing current rules that work to prevent robocalls and spoofing, and encouraged the FCC to share ideas of how they can improve consumer protections against robocalls. We will continue to monitor any legislation related to the TCPA that moves through Congress.