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National View Column: Federal action can help end annoying robocalls

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Morning, noon, and night — and many hours in between — we are bombarded with calls we try to avoid answering: “Hi, we are offering you an opportunity to stay in a luxury resort for three days and two nights at an amazing discount!” Or, “We have a Social Security refund check waiting for you; just press or dial 2, provide your Social Security number, and we’ll send out your check.”

These are two examples of the millions — no, tens of billions, according to a June USA Today report — of illegal robocalls consumers receive over the course of just one year. It’s enough to make us want to yell out the window, “We are really mad and we are not going to take it anymore!”

Some of us still remember the good old days when the ring of our phone meant a call was coming in that we actually wanted to receive. Today, that expectation is far from true. Statistics give justice to the suspicion we all seem to have. Last year, 36% of all calls made in the U.S. were illegal, and/or unwanted robocalls, as Yahoo News reported in January. While this seems like an extraordinary number of calls, this total was actually a 5% drop in the total number of illegal calls made in 2018.

There have been several steps taken to help mitigate the flood of illegal robocalls, according to Nomorobo. First, consumers have taken their own steps to block unwanted calls by using helpful blocking tools provided by carriers and other companies. Second, carriers have worked closely with federal regulators to build new tools within their networks to block illegal robocallers. Together, these efforts have begun to have an impact. Nomorobo states, “The truth is, the tide is finally turning against scammers and telemarketers."

Now, there’s a third, very powerful weapon in the fight against illegal robocalls: A new law passed by Congress at the close of 2019, the TRACED Act is bipartisan legislation that protects consumers from unwanted robocalls by requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take on numerous regulatory proceedings and actions to mitigate a broad range of illegal robocall issues.

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The law directs the FCC to attack illegal robocalls in three areas: by mandating caller-ID authentication requirements, strengthening the enforcement and reporting of illegal robocalls, and expanding consumer protections. The law will relieve consumers from excessive illegal calls while maintaining their privacy and safety.

Briefly, some key examples of this new law’s strong attack on illegal robocalls include provisions to direct the FCC to require carriers to implement a caller-ID authentication protocol (a method for carriers to authenticate calls for consumers) while also prohibiting them from charging consumers or small businesses for this implementation. Another provision allows the FCC to seek additional civil-forfeiture penalties, a helpful tool in combating illegal robocallers.

The new law will also establish an interagency robocall working group to include non-federal representatives such as state attorneys general to work on increasing federal and state enforcement of laws that apply to robocall violators.

Importantly, the law includes a comprehensive list of consumer protections designed to keep consumers informed and safe in the wake of illegal and unwanted robocalls, including one to initiate a regulatory proceeding to protect consumers from manipulative and potentially costly one-ring scams.

On the whole, the TRACED Act requires the FCC to take actions that are both significant and far-reaching, providing service providers with a more powerful set of tools to give consumers the clear edge in the ongoing battle with illegal robocalls.

Robocalls are still an incredible nuisance and are often described as a game of Whac-A-Mole, where we are able to stop illegal robocalls with one effort but then illegal efforts take over again leveraging a new tact. However, the statistics now show that actions by regulators and carriers are just starting to get ahead of the game. State attorneys general and other state representatives have been excellent partners with federal policymakers to support and enforce FCC regulations in the fight against illegal robocalls. They will all now have the additional actions required by the TRACED Act. Let’s continue to follow this path.

While it is tempting to consider more armament in this fight against one of the top consumer complaints, it’s premature to consider additional steps. For 2020, all hands should be on deck to work together to enforce the bipartisan federal legislation that has already begun to be implemented.

Debra Berlyn is president of Consumer Policy Solutions in Washington, D.C. She also is vice chairwoman of the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee and is on the boards of directors for the National Consumers League and the Future of Privacy Forum. She wrote this for the News Tribune.

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Debra Berlyn

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