An Effort to Curb the Scourge of Robocalls

Near-unanimous votes in either chamber of Congress on legislation more substantial than naming post offices and the like are rare. But one noteworthy such tally took place in the Senate last week.

In a 97-1 vote (Kentucky’s Rand Paul was the lone holdout), senators overwhelmingly approved the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, pithily acronymed TRACED. The legislation would empower law enforcement to more effectively tackle robocallers, and raise civil penalties to as much as $10,000 per call.

Despite the introduction of the “Do Not Call” registry in 2003, robocalls — computer-dialed mass messages to telephones — still interrupt the daily lives of Americans nationwide. If you answer the phone and hear a recorded message, that’s a robocall — a computer, if not quite a robot, calling you, not another human being.

Billions of such unwanted calls are made each year, either because citizens haven’t offered their numbers to the “Do Not Call” registry or because unscrupulous sellers and scammers ignore the registry’s rules, which is not uncommon.

Most, if not all, of us have received robocalls about political issues, from candidates running for office, or from tzedakos and mosdos asking for donations or notifying us of events and other information. These robocalls are legally permitted, and will continue to be even if the TRACED bill becomes law. But, even now, if the recording is a sales message and one hasn’t given written permission to receive calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal. In addition to the phone calls being unlawful, their pitch most likely is a scam.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission have said they receive more complaints from consumers about illegal robocalls than anything else every year.

Robocalls often come from scammers seeking to steal personal information from consumers, and have particularly targeted vulnerable populations like senior citizens. Other scams involve repeatedly calling a number and hanging up, prompting the harassed call recipient to call the number back, connecting him to a pay-per-minute number. Authorities recommend that people pay close attention to their phone bills to help ensure that they haven’t somehow been charged for calls initiated by scammers.

The current bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where other anti-robocall bills have been circulating, for further consideration.

Should it or a similar bill be passed by the House and signed by the President, both of which seem likely, the TRACED Act would set up an inter-agency group that includes the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the State Department, the Commerce Department and state attorneys general, to address the problem.

The FCC would also be tasked with proposing new rules to protect people from receiving unwanted calls and messages from unauthenticated numbers. And the legislation would extend the statute of limitations on unsolicited robocalls from two to three years.

Lawmakers during the previous Congress held three hearings and passed 13 bills aimed at curtailing robocalls, but the current measure is the most significant piece of legislation to address the issue so far.

The TRACED legislation would also accelerate the rollout of so-called “call authentication” technologies, which could cut down on the number of calls coming from unverified numbers by authenticating callers using their own phone numbers and eliminating those from spammers using phone numbers they don’t rightfully own.

Robocalls, as noted, are legally made in the U.S. to home phones only by political parties, unaffiliated campaigns, registered charitable organizations, unions and individual citizens. Political robocalls are also exempt from the “Do Not Call” registry. But FCC regulations currently prohibit anyone, including charities, politicians and political parties, from making robocalls to cell phone numbers without the recipients’ prior consent.

All robocalls, moreover, irrespective of their nature, must identify who is initiating the calls and include a telephone number or address to reach the caller. Those requirements, however, are generally honored more in the breach than in the observance.

For most Americans, unwanted robocalls are essentially just a nuisance. For members of our own community, they are a more serious issue, as we greatly value every moment of our time and are hard-pressed to give our children or aged parents the care and attention they need, and to engage in Torah study and other religious obligations. Interruptions of our days generally aren’t interruptions of leisure time but of engagement in truly important things.

It is unlikely that the TRACED legislation will put an end to robocalls. Criminals are adept at finding ways to circumvent measures aimed at thwarting them. But any effort to curb the huge and growing incidence of unwanted robocalls is well worth the government’s time and effort.