Lawmakers introduce bills to crack down on robocalls

Nuisance calls and scams went unmonitored during the shutdown, but harsher penalties could be coming

Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission, said earlier this week “We are not overseeing so many of the things that we do on a day to day basis” during the partial government shutdown. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The federal regulators who typically track and alert the public to new robocall schemes were furloughed for more than a month during the partial government shutdown, exacerbating what some lawmakers call a “scourge” of phone scams.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in both chambers have introduced bills to strengthen the authority of federal agencies to crack down on pesky and sometimes illegal robocalls amid a surge of consumer complaints in recent years.

Of course, the agencies will not be able to leverage these new powers until federal employees are back at their desks.

Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission were shuttered during the shutdown. On Friday, President Donald Trump announced a tentative agreement with congressional leaders to reopen government agencies through Feb. 15, but threatened another shutdown if he did not eventually get his way on a southern border wall. 

“We are not tracking robocalls ... We are not overseeing so many of the things that we do on a day to day basis,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said on Tuesday.

That left consumers more vulnerable to fraudsters pitching deals on health insurance or demanding payment on a bogus tax bill.

And while robocalls have not surged during the shutdown, consumers can expect a spike if watchdogs continue to lack funding, according to Alex Quilici, the CEO of YouMail Inc., which tracks the volume of robocalls in the United States.

“If the shutdown lasts longer, we’d expect an increase as robocallers realize there are no police on the beat — as the FCC and FTC can’t move forward with enforcement when they are shut down," Quilici said Friday before the deal between Trump and congressional leaders was announced.

Operations around the National Do Not Call Registry lapsed, so it could not accept new signups and telemarketers could not download the data. And the FTC stopped issuing alerts that warned the public about new innovative phone scams. 

Those new and unmonitored schemes include scammers taking advantage of the confusion surrounding the government shutdown in their pitches, though those calls have occurred “at a relatively small scale,” Quilici said.

Watch: McConnell says GOP plan only way to reopen government, Schumer says ‘Bull’

Thirteen Democratic senators addressed a letter to the FTC Wednesday expressing concern about the impact of the shutdown on consumers deluged with robocalls and facing identity theft. 

“We are deeply concerned by the continued threat of illegal robocallers and other scammers during the ongoing government shutdown and want to work with you to make sure anyone falling victim to them during this unnecessary lapse in funding does not fall through the cracks,” the senators wrote.

But while the shutdown offered a window of opportunity to scammers, harsher enforcement could be coming down the pike. 

The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, reintroduced last week by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., would improve enforcement of the Communications Act of 1934 by lengthening the statue of limitations from one to three years for violations and ramping up civil penalties to $10,000 per call.

The bill would also require service providers to adopt technology to authenticate phone calls before they reach consumers’ phones and charges the FCC with implementing more rules around consumer protection.

“Robocall scams are more than just a nuisance to folks, they’re a shameful tactic to prey on the vulnerable,” Thune said in a statement.

A bipartisan group of House members also put forward more limited legislation this week to create a fact-finding interagency body called the Spam Calls Task Force — to be led by the attorney general and the FCC — to weigh solutions and “consider if increased criminal penalties or fines would serve as deterrent.”

The lawmakers — Republican Reps. Garret Graves of Louisiana and Walter Jones of North Carolina, and Democratic Reps. Charlie Crist of Florida and  Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania — argue the bombardment of calls constitutes harassment and invasion of privacy.

“When unsolicited calls turn to a form of harassment and put basic communications in jeopardy, citizens need relief,” Cartwright said in a statement.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.