Lawmakers pass bipartisan anti-robocall bill

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act earlier this month, which now heads to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law. (Getty Images)

Legislation tackling robocalls has made its way through Congress with bipartisan support, as the Senate on Thursday approved a bill that enables stronger FCC action against illegal robocallers and requires carriers to provide call-authentication technology to consumers at no cost.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act earlier this month, which now heads to President Trump’s desk to be signed into law.  

It represents significant progress on the government’s efforts to combat unlawful and nuisance robocalls that plague American consumers and businesses daily. Nationwide, 54 billion robocalls were placed so far in 2019 alone, according to the YouMail Robocall Index.

Both the House and Senate introduced respective anti-robocall measures earlier this year, with the Senate passing its TRACED Act in May, followed by House passage of the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act in July. 

House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders praised today’s vote and said significant difference between the two bills were reconciled as part of a bipartisan bicameral agreement announced last month.

“We’re delighted the Senate acted quickly to pass this legislation to shutdown illegal robocalls. We’re working hard to help the American people get real relief from these relentless and illegal calls. We look forward to the President signing this overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation into law very soon,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Latta (R-OH), in a joint statement.

RELATED: FCC’s Pai looks to extend spoofed robocall rules to text messages, international calls

The bill (PDF) requires carriers to offer call-authentication technology to consumers and small businesses across America at no additional charge. Within 18 months of the bill becoming law, the FCC will require voice service providers to implement the STIR/SHAKEN authentication framework if they haven’t already done so.  

STIR/SHAKEN protocols use digital certificates to ensure that an incoming phone number isn’t an illegal ‘spoofed’ call originating from a different source than appears on the device receiving the call.

To help ensure rural areas of the country with older technology are not left out, the bill requires the FCC to recognize and address barriers to adopting STIR/SHAKEN technology and help find alternative methodologies for authenticating calls.

It also requires providers to offer opt-in or opt-out robocall blocking services at no additional charge to consumers.

The FCC earlier this year authorized telcos to automatically block robocalls by default, and most major carriers currently offer some level of free robocall-blocking services.

RELATED: FCC gives telcos the authority to block robocalls

AT&T in July became the first carrier to automatically block robocalls and the carrier has worked with competitor T-Mobile to deliver STIR/SHAKEN technology that works across both of their networks.

The newly passed TRACED Act also authorizes the FCC to step up enforcement actions, including extending the statute of limitations by up to four years in some cases and enabling the agency to go after first-time scammers. 

In addition, it allows the FCC to levy civil penalties of up to $10,000 per call in certain instances, in hopes of deterring robocallers.

Just last week the FCC proposed (PDF) a nearly $10 million fine against Kenneth Moser and his telemarketing company for apparently making more than 47,000 unlawful spoofed robocalls over a two-day period.

However, while praising the proposed penalty, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in her statement (PDF) that the fine was not enough, and without legislation not especially meaningful. That’s because the FCC has been hindered in actually collecting penalties it’s assessed for unlawful robocalls.

Rosenworcel pointed to a Wall Street Journal report earlier this year that found out of more than $208 million in fines levied by the FCC on robocallers, it had collected just $6,790.

“That’s embarrassing. In fact, it has gotten so bad that Congress has stepped in with legislative efforts to improve coordination across the government and make it possible for this agency to collect on its enforcement fines,” Rosenworcel said last week. “We need it.”

Industry groups applauded today’s unanimous Senate passage of the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, with CTIA President & CEO, Meredith Attwell Baker, calling it “crucial legislation.”

“Protecting consumers and stopping illegal and unwanted robocalls is a priority for the wireless industry,” said Baker in a statement. “This overwhelmingly bipartisan legislative victory will remove barriers and enhance the FCC’s authority to go after bad actors – stopping illegal robocalls at the source – and acknowledges the importance of industry’s efforts to adopt and implement call authentication, which will allow providers to be more proactive in blocking illegal calls.”

Steve Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), commended passage of the bill and urged President Trump to sign it into law.

“Robocalls have been the number one consumer complaint at the FCC, and this legislation takes steps to provide customers with trusted voice communications,” Berry added. “I thank Congress for its work to address this issue and for taking steps to implement effective call authentication programs that address this significant consumer complaint.”

AARP, representing its 38 million members, previously endorsed (PDF) the bill, saying it would benefit Americans of all ages.

The new legislation aims to encourage the U.S. Department of Justice to bring more criminal prosecutions against illegal robocallers and also requires the FCC to work to stop one-ring scams. It also hopes to foster interagency cooperation in addressing the widespread robocall problem.