House clears bill to relieve onslaught of robocalls plaguing Americans

The House voted to pass a bill that would require phone companies to offer screening technology to customers at no cost

The House passed a bill, sponsored by Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., to tackle robocalls. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers and their constituents are fed up with the bombardment of nuisance and scam calls plaguing their cell phones and on Wednesday the House passed a bipartisan measure to combat robocalls.

The House voted 429-3 to pass a bill that would require phone companies to offer screening technology to customers at no cost that would identify and block spam robocalls. It would also double, to four years, the time period that parties can be prosecuted for illegal robocalls.

[Senate backs bill to stem flood of robocalls plaguing cell phones]

New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone Jr. teamed up with Oregon Republican Greg Walden to sponsor the measure, which would require the Federal Communications Commission to give Congress an annual report on its robocall enforcement activities, and provide legislative proposals to decrease their frequency.

“Illegal, unwanted robocalls threaten the foundational ways we communicate with one another and, in my opinion, that’s dangerous. It chips away at our community and public safety,” Pallone said.

Under the measure, the FCC to would need to update what it considers a “robocall,” which would require more businesses to obtain consent from customers before making automated calls.

Many lawmakers spoke on the floor about hearing from constituents who had been scammed or are frustrated by the frequency and deception of robocalls.

“I have a constituent who calls my office nearly every time he receives a robocall. He’s begged us to do something,” said Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rogers. “After today, I look forward to sharing with him that we listened and took action to solve this problem.”

In recent years technological advances have allowed robocallers to target thousands of phones with minimal effort, which some advocates say has rendered the 2003 National Do Not Call Registry ineffective.

Walden acknowledged that technology and persistent criminals adapt faster than Congress can usually act.

“Now, we know communications and technologies are constantly evolving, and unfortunately, the bad actors’ tricks are all beyond our do not call registry and I’m sure they'll find a way to get around this effort,” he said.

The bill would require carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile start deploying the call authentication protocols to help consumers distinguish whether a call is coming from a real caller. 

The House bill specifically targets the so-called “one ring scam,” in which scammers call numbers and immediately hang up, hoping that the recipient will call back. The calls usually mimic a familiar area code, but are actually international.

The bill would require the FCC to take action to protect consumers from one-ring scams and coordinate with foreign governments to address the problem.

A  robocall bill the Senate passed in May would ramp up civil penalties to $10,000 per call, and it would give law enforcement tools to pursue robocallers.

The Senate bill would bring together the FCC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and a slew of federal and non-federal agencies to prepare reports to Congress on how to improve deterrence and criminal prosecution of robocall scams at the federal and state level.

South Dakota Republican John Thune teamed up with Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey to sponsor the measure. The pair said that while robocalls are a problem across the country, certain people are at higher risk of falling for scammers ploys to steal personally identifying information or money.

“Illegal robocalls, I think we can all agree, are a major nuisance,” said Thune after the Senate passed the bill. “Scammers use these calls to successfully pray on vulnerable populations like elderly Americans who are sometimes less technologically savvy.”

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