How Government Works

Senate Passes Bill to Combat Illegal Robocalls

If we can pick one complaint most Americans have in common, it is this.  We are all sick and tired of having our day interrupted by unwanted robocalls.  They call on land lines.  They call on cell phones.  They never stop.  Members of Congress are also frustrated.  They are inundated with phone calls from constituents complaining about robocalls.  This universal frustration explains why, on May 23, 2019, Senate Bill 151, which is designed to curb the annoying calls, passed with a vote of 97 to 1.

What exactly do we mean when we use the term “robocall?”  We are talking about phone calls where answering the call prompts a recorded voice to begin talking.  There is no actual person on the line.  The voice may not sound robotic, but the absence of a human caller is the source of the name. 

There are three types of robocalls you may receive.  The first is a legitimate message.  That category includes things like a doctor’s office calling with an appointment reminder; an airline calling about a flight cancellation; or your bank calling with a fraud alert.  The second category consists of ads from legitimate companies.  Window replacement companies, air conditioner repair offers, hotels offering special deals – the list goes on. Many companies have chosen to use robocalls to advertise their products and services.  While the calls may be unwelcome, the majority are not breaking the law. 

Scam robocalls are the third category.  Phone scams run the gamut from the IRS scam claiming you have unpaid tax debt to the call claiming you are in danger of criminal prosecution for credit card charges.  There are romance scams, travel scams, grandchild in a foreign jail scams, home improvement scams, and fake charity scams, to list just a few.

Why are There So Many Robocalls?

The number of robocalls has increased dramatically in the past several years.  There are several reasons for the increase.  The first is the advent of the auto dialer.  These computerized dialing systems are capable of dialing large volumes of telephone numbers simultaneously.  That means advertisers and scam artists can call thousands of numbers very quickly.  That translates to more robocalls for you and for me.

Another reason for the increase is a March 2018 court decision that threw out the Obama era FCC[1] rules intended to curb robocalls.  The decision by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in ACA International v. FCC held that the rules were invalid because the definition of the term “auto dialer” in the rules was overly broad and could be used to include smartphones.  Without those rules to keep them in check, scammers have had a field day. In 2018, Americans received 47.8 billion robocalls.  Over 46 percent of that number were scam calls.  Most of the rest were legitimate companies hawking their wares. 

Experts agree the “do not call” registry is largely ineffective.  Scammers simply ignore it, and many advertising companies do as well.  With so many calls, it is almost impossible to police violations.  Law enforcement and telecommunications experts also say that the current laws which limit federal enforcement to civil suits against the wrongdoers don’t work at all.  Scammers, who may be located in Russia or China, don’t care if the FCC sues them in a civil action.  They simply close their shop and move to a new name and new location.  When you go after these guys, they evaporate.  Law enforcement agencies want criminal enforcement and criminal penalties.

What the New Senate Bill Would Do.

The proposed law is called the TRACED Act.  The acronym stands for Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act.  Senate Bill 151 would do the following things:

  • Broaden FCC authority to levy fines of up to $10,000 per call for those who intentionally violate telemarketing laws.
  • Extend the window the FCC has to catch and take enforcement action against violators.  It is currently one year from the date of the robocall.  Under the new Bill, the FCC would have 3 years.
  • Creates a committee of various enforcement agencies, including the FCC, FTC[2], Commerce Department, Homeland Security, State Department, and Federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to find better enforcement methods and report to Congress.
  • Requires voice service providers to adopt call authentication technologies so that phone companies can verify that calls are legitimate before they reach the customer’s phone.

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee has introduced its own bill.  The House bill seeks to cement down the definition of auto dialer to close the loophole created by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in ACA International v FCC.  It would also require telecommunications companies to provide blocking services against illegal calls free of charge.

Will both of these bills pass?  Will they help curb the robocall plague?  Hopefully, they will at least have an impact on curbing the influx of annoying calls.  Even more importantly, let’s hope they prevent the scams and frauds that have hurt so many people.




 [1]  FCC stands for Federal Communications Commission

[2] FTC is the Federal Trade Commission.




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