Amer­i­cans are sick of robo­calls

Can Congress agree on how to block them?

The Morning Call - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Emily Cadei

WASHINGTON — Fake char­ity ap­peals or IRS tax delin­quency no­tices. Tricks that tempt you to call an over­seas hot­line — and rack up ex­pen­sive charges. By one es­ti­mate, Amer­i­cans lost more than $10 bil­lion thanks to scam phone calls over the last year.

And thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of new tech­nol­ogy and le­gal am­bi­gu­ity, auto-dial mar­ket­ing calls — both le­git­i­mate and il­le­git­i­mate — are on the rise. The call-block­ing com­pany YouMail re­ports that U.S. con­sumers re­ceived 48 bil­lion robo­calls last year, and they are now the largest source of con­sumer com­plaints to the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion.

This ex­plo­sion of so-called robo­calls has prompted grow­ing anger among con­sumers and a rare mo­ment of bi­par­ti­san ac­tion in Congress. The Se­nate passed leg­is­la­tion to rein in spam calls by a vote of 97 to 1 in May. The House passed its own ver­sion of robo­call leg­is­la­tion nearly unan­i­mously in late July — just three of Congress’ 435 mem­bers voted against it.

But while law­mak­ers across the po­lit­i­cal spectrum agree that scam calls are bad and should be pre­vented, they’re still de­bat­ing just how far Amer­i­cans can go to avoid an­noy­ing robo­calls, par­tic­u­larly ones that aren’t fraud­u­lent.

The House’s Stop­ping Bad Robo­calls Act di­rects reg­u­la­tors to grant sweep­ing new pow­ers to con­sumers to keep robo­callers at bay. It would ex­pand the types of calls Amer­i­cans can opt out of and that phone com­pa­nies can block. It would also re­quire phone car­ri­ers to up­date their call au­then­ti­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy to pre­vent what’s known as “spoof­ing” — where a spam caller im­per­son­ates a lo­cal num­ber in the re­cip­i­ent’s area.

But to be­come law, the bill’s spon­sors must rec­on­cile their lan­guage with the Se­nate ver­sion, which con­sumer ad­vo­cates say is weaker on some key is­sues.

In­dus­tries that rely on tele­mar­keters, in­clud­ing bank­ing, mort­gage ser­vicers and debt col­lec­tors, have spent mil­lions of dol­lars on lob­by­ing so far this year, lob­by­ing dis­clo­sure re­ports show, in­clud­ing against por­tions of the House bill they ar­gue go too far.

The Cham­ber of Com­merce and a coali­tion of other ad­vo­cacy groups warned in an April 29 let­ter to law­mak­ers that the House bill would “harm busi­nesses and con­sumers by im­ped­ing le­git­i­mate calls that con­sumers ac­tu­ally need or want.”

As ex­am­ples, the let­ter cited “Fraud alerts, data breach no­ti­fi­ca­tions, re­minders to re­new pre­scrip­tions or sched­ule a visit to the doc­tor, no­ti­fi­ca­tions of power out­ages, and au­to­mo­bile re­call no­tices.”

Con­sumer groups, which have just a frac­tion of the lob­by­ing fire­power, have voiced sup­port for both the Se­nate and House bills. But they are push­ing for many of the tougher pro­pos­als in the House ver­sion be in­cluded in the fi­nal leg­is­la­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Mar­got Saun­ders, Na­tional Con­sumer Law Cen­ter se­nior coun­sel, the House bill would re­quire con­sent for far more types of robo­calls and mar­ket­ing texts, or al­low recipients to opt out.

“Com­pa­nies are al­ways seek­ing ex­emp­tions“from the Tele­phone Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act, a 1991 law that re­quires robo­callers to get con­sent for some types of mar­ket­ing calls, said Con­sumer Re­ports pol­icy an­a­lyst Mau­reen Mahoney. The House lan­guage ”puts some im­por­tant guardrails in place.“

Mahoney noted that the Se­nate leg­is­la­tion takes steps to im­prove caller ID au­then­ti­ca­tion, a grow­ing prob­lem as more and more scam­mers use soft­ware pro­grams to mask the true orig­i­na­tion num­ber and in­di­cate to the re­cip­i­ent that the call is com­ing from a lo­cal num­ber. The tac­tic, known as “caller ID spoof­ing,“makes it dif­fi­cult for con­sumers to block un­wanted calls.

“I think this caller ID au­then­ti­ca­tion piece is go­ing to be re­ally im­por­tant in en­sur­ing ac­cu­racy in block­ing calls,“said Mahoney.

Un­like the Se­nate bill, how­ever, the House bill re­quires that phone com­pa­nies pro­vide this new au­then­ti­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy to con­sumers at no ad­di­tional charge. And it goes fur­ther than the Se­nate leg­is­la­tion in re­quir­ing the FCC to help ru­ral providers, who are not ca­pa­ble of us­ing the ex­ist­ing au­then­ti­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy, come up with other ways to meet those re­quire­ments. “That is likely to take care of a lot of the caller ID spoof­ing,” said Saun­ders, “but not all.”

Some are push­ing for Congress to go even fur­ther.

Demo­cratic Sens. Dianne Fe­in­stein of Cal­i­for­nia, Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota and Richard Blu­men­thal of Con­necti­cut introduced leg­is­la­tion that would give the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion more power to crack down on phone car­ri­ers “who know­ingly ig­nore bil­lions of il­le­gal and in­tru­sive robo­calls on their ser­vice lines.”

“We must do more than go af­ter the peo­ple mak­ing the robo­calls, we need to stop the phone ser­vices that make this il­le­gal be­hav­ior pos­si­ble,” Fe­in­stein ex­plained in a re­lease. “Our bill will give the FTC the tools it needs to do ex­actly that.”

Ma­jor phone and in­ter­net providers, which have lent their sup­port to the other robo­call bills, would un­doubt­edly fight such a pro­posal.

Thus far, there have not been dis­cus­sions about fold­ing Fe­in­stein’s pro­posal into a fi­nal robo­call law, an aide con­firmed.

Staff for the authors of the House and Se­nate leg­is­la­tion are ex­pected to dis­cuss the out­lines of a com­pro­mise bill while Congress mem­bers are away on their Au­gust re­cess, with the aim of send­ing it to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump some time this fall.

JOHN RAOUX/AP

An ex­plo­sion of robo­calls has prompted grow­ing anger among con­sumers and a mo­ment of bi­par­ti­san ac­tion in Congress.

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