In a 429-3 bipartisan vote on July 24, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives followed the lead of recent Senate and Federal Communications Commission decisions by passing the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act (H.R. 3375). In the nearly unanimous vote, representatives called for providers to enhance their call authentication technology, provide free robocall blocking to consumers, and lengthen the enforcement timeframe for violations while also requiring a full congressional report on robocalls.
The anti-robocall measures taking shape in Washington, D.C. have been in response to a recent increase in reported robocall complaints. Last year, Americans were reported to have received 47.8 billion robocalls. The average number of robocalls in the United States in 2019 stands at about 90 per person. Several consumer rights groups sent a letter to Congress to urge passage of the legislation, and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Frank Pallone Jr., said that with this bill, the House voted to “put consumers back in charge of their phones.”
Earlier this year, the Senate passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement Deterrence (“TRACED”) Act, which would expand the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and improve agency involvement in policing robocalls. TRACED also provides for a three-year statute of limitations for enforcement of intentional robocalls. The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act would extend the enforcement time to four years. Congress plans to combine the two bills into one piece of legislation for final presidential approval.
Last month, the Federal Communications Commission ruled to permit default robocall blocking by telephone companies. The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act follows the trend and stipulates that companies must no longer charge consumers for the blocking services. The House bill also calls for the FCC to create clear systems for callers and consumers to report incorrectly blocked calls. This service must be up and running within 18 months of enactment.
The House handed down several mandates to the FCC within the bill. The FCC must update the definition of robocalls to include that consumers cannot be targeted without their express consent. It also must remove exemptions for organizations such as financial institutions that regularly use robocalls. Currently, the fine imposed by the FCC for illegal robocalls stands at $1,500 per violation. The bill would increase the fine to $10,000 per violation.
The Federal Trade Commission also regulates robocalls, so the FCC will be required under the bill to consult with the FTC and submit a report compiling the next five years of robocall complaints, one year of enforcement citations, and the total collected fines for violations. It must analyze how much service providers actually contribute to the inundation of robocalls and provide reduction plan proposals based on the analysis.
Most notably, the House bill provides for the FCC to create a database of disconnected or reassigned numbers. The database will allow companies to ascertain if a number has been reassigned. Use of the database will also shield companies from liability if the database is inaccurate.
Similar to TRACED and the June 2019 FCC ruling, the House bill requires phone companies to implement SHAKEN/STIR call authentication technology, but on a more rapid timeline. Large providers will have one year, while smaller companies must only show that they are working towards becoming compliant with the digital fingerprint technology. The previous FCC ruling did not speak to how carriers must pay for the authentication technology, but the House bill requires all technology to be implemented at no cost to consumers.
The bill also establishes a Hospital Robocall Protection Group to specifically target the healthcare system. Hospital staff and patients are some of the most affected by scam robocalls and are especially at risk for personal health information leaks.
Authors are Thomas Blatchley and Shelby Dattilo.