Capitol Report: Robocalls bill looks on track to become law, but lacks bite of earlier House measure

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Washington looks on track to deliver a new law targeting robocalls, in the federal government’s latest attempt to fight against the automated calls.

The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act is drawing only measured praise from one consumer advocate, while representatives of companies involved in robocalls are sounding somewhat relieved.

“This bill is clearly a step forward. It does impose some protections and mandates for consumers that will stop the robocall problem to some extent,” said Margot Saunders, a senior attorney at the nonprofit National Consumer Law Center, which represents low-income people before the Federal Communications Commission on robocall matters. She told MarketWatch that the measure “leaves much to the FCC,” as that regulatory agency keeps “working to fix the problem of robocalls.”

The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act would require phone-service providers to implement an effective caller-ID authentication program, and it would make sure that providers are allowed to block unauthenticated calls. Such provisions mirror what the FCC is already working toward. In addition, the bill ramps up penalties for offenders and specifies that providers in rural areas must deliver the authentication program, and it bars providers from separately billing for authentication or blocking services. The NCLC noted in a statement Monday that the measure does not mandate that call-blocking programs be offered to all consumers, and it also doesn’t provide clarification for key disputed terms in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

It’s a compromise measure that comes after the House earlier this year passed the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, while the Senate voted in favor of the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, which was introduced by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. The NCLC’s Saunders said in May that Pallone’s original bill aimed to go the farthest in cracking down on robocalls, while the TRACED Act was “getting the most traction because it does something that is clearly needed but also is already happening.”

Related: Major phone carriers get involved to stop robocalls

And see: Can’t take the robocalls anymore? Here are some ways to fight back

ACA International, which lobbies for collection agencies, said in a statement last week on the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act that it appreciated that “Congress ultimately considered how the accounts receivable management industry and other legitimate actors would have been impacted by certain broad language in the original House bill that hindered needed business communications and made American businesses prone to additional frivolous litigation.”

In a similar vein, defense attorney Eric Troutman, who specializes in Telephone Consumer Protection Act litigation and compliance, suggested in a blog post last week that clients could be “thankful” that the compromise measure does not appear to include new criminal enforcement provisions and doesn’t contain several elements that were in Pallone’s initial bill.

The House on Wednesday voted 417-3 in favor of the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, and the Senate was reportedly expected to vote on it either this week or next week. The bill’s supporters said in a statement last month that they believe it can be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

“It’s time to put Americans back in charge of their phones,” said the statement, which came from Pallone, Thune and Markey, as well as Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon and Republican Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio. “Our agreement will require telephone carriers to verify calls and allow robocalls to be blocked in a consistent and transparent way, all at no extra charge to consumers. The agreement also gives the FCC and law enforcement the ability to quickly go after scammers.”

Americans received a record-setting 5.7 billion robocalls in October, according to estimates from YouMail, a company that provides a call-blocking service. The new monthly all-time high “reminds us there’s a long way to go before the robocall problem is solved,” the company said in a news release.

Dozens of organizations have lobbied lawmakers this year on anti-robocall bills, according to OpenSecrets.org tallies — from trade groups such as the Credit Union National Association to public companies such as debt collector Encore Capital Group ECPG, +2.64%  .

This report was first published on Dec. 3, 2019.

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