WASHINGTON — Congress on Thursday approved the country’s first major anti-robocall law in decades, hoping that a mix of new federal powers and regulations targeting the telecom industry will spell relief from spam calls that rang consumers a record 54 billion times this year.
The vote in the Senate, weeks after the House passed the legislation, sends the bill to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it. The measure won’t cut down on robocalls immediately, its backers acknowledge, but over time should lessen the unwanted interruptions — and take aim at the fraudsters behind them.
Under the proposal, dubbed the TRACED Act, the government will gain new powers to find and prosecute criminals who place batches of calls under fake numbers without obtaining permission, remedying what law enforcement officials have said was a major weakness that inhibited their ability to punish those who contact Americans en masse.
The bill also puts in motion a process requiring AT&T, Verizon and other telecom carriers — small and large, wireless and those that service landlines — to adopt technology that’s supposed to help companies and consumers identify when calls are legitimate or spam. Carriers that implement this technology to block suspected, fraudulent robocalls also must offer people those services for free.
Many provisions in the legislation will take months to implement, and even supporters say it isn’t perfect, leaving a number of robocall issues unresolved. Nothing, for example, cuts down on credit card companies, student lenders and others that call Americans in droves.
Still, lawmakers and consumer advocates hailed it as a critical first step after robocallers rang Americans’ smartphones an estimated 54 billion times over the past 11 months, according to YouMail, a call-blocking app that found 60% of such calls are fraudulent.
“It’s going to give law enforcement, the FCC, the tools to go after robocallers who break the law,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the lead author of the legislation in the House.
Even as Washington warred with itself — deadlocked by partisanship, gripped with impeachment and entering a presidential election year — lawmakers found rare alignment in their shared hatred of robocalls. Spurring Democrats and Republicans to act was an outcry from voters and businesses tired of the telecom intrusions and victims who said their identities had been stolen when they unwittingly answered their phones.
Over the past year, illegal robocalls peddled Social Security and credit card scams, targeted Americans enrolling in health insurance and, in one operation revealed this month, allegedly spread misinformation about a political candidate in California. The Federal Communications Commission proposed a nearly $10 million fine for the suspected originator of the calls made shortly before California’s 2018 primary election for the state assembly.
But the disruptions have proved to be more than a mere nuisance: They imperiled hospitals, overwhelming doctors’ phone lines and scaring patients, leading medical professionals to fear that robocalls could create a public-health crisis if left untreated. In response, the new law adopted by Congress creates a special task force to address robocalls targeting hospitals and other health-care organizations, responding to reports from The Washington Post.
“There are numerous stories of hospital telephone lines being flooded with robocalls, disrupting critical lines of communication for hours,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who helped author the legislation. “That can’t be allowed to go on.”
Federal law already had set limits on robocalls — requiring, for example, callers to get permission before bombarding people with prerecorded messages. But the rules, adopted in 1991, increasingly proved to be no match against fraudsters who developed sophisticated techniques to masquerade their phone numbers and dial or text consumers in large batches. Federal regulators said they were hamstrung, noting they sometimes had to issue stern warnings before they could bring fines — a gap in enforcement that the TRACED Act eliminates.
Initially, House lawmakers also took aim at a wider array of robocalls: Their original bill tasked the FCC to rethink what qualifies as an automated dial in the first place. The proposal might have resulted in consumers receiving fewer unwanted calls from scammers and legitimate businesses alike.
But it quickly faced staunch opposition from business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and top lobbyists from the insurance, banking and student-lending industries, which pressured Congress to preserve their ability to continue calling consumers. In the end, a scaled-back approach favored by Senate Republicans prevailed.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who helped craft the proposal, acknowledged in a statement that he initially hoped “the final bill would have also tackled certain definitional issues” but added “some industries that rely on harassing consumers with robocalls opposed strong action on this front.”
“The FCC has, and should use, its authority to address any remaining gaps,” Markey added.
The Chamber said it had not taken a position on the legislation Congress approved this week.
Over the past year, the FCC has introduced new efforts designed to clamp down on robocalls. In June, for example, the FCC voted to allow AT&T, Verizon and others to block suspected spam calls by default on behalf of their subscribers. Those carriers, meanwhile, began offering consumers new robocall-blocking tools, as did device-makers like Apple and app developers on their platforms.
Alex Quilici, the founder of YouMail, said it’s probably going to be “12 to 18 months before” the flurry of federal activity affects the heavy volume of robocalls that Americans receive.
“It gives enforcement more time and more teeth, but that doesn’t mean instantly they can go arrest hundreds of robocallers and put them in jail,” Quilici said. “It’s going to take some time to apply the law’s enforcement provisions.”
Lawmakers also opted against specifying a hard deadline by which all carriers must implement technology to crack down on a practice known as spoofing, where a robocaller uses a phone number similar to the person they’re trying to call in an attempt to get them to pick up. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile have made early strides putting it into place — and the result for some smartphone users are warnings when they’re receiving suspicious calls. But some carriers are struggling to implement the system nationwide, particularly on older telephone networks.
“It won’t have an immediate impact on day one or day two, but it requires the institution of a number of methodologies that will address different problems causing unwanted robocalls,” said Margot Saunders, the senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center.
“It’s not as much as we wanted,” she added, “but it will help address the onslaught of robocalls.”