Given the great national divide it’s hard to find anything that all Americans agree about. That’s certainly reflected in Washington where legislative gridlock between Republicans and Democrats with irreconcilable differences is the norm on matters of public policy. Until now. By a vote of 97-1, the Senate passed S. 151, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act. Talk about bipartisanship, the bill was introduced by John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) with more than 80 co-sponsors, including Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado. Who could disagree with such a worthy cause? Robocallers, of course, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the lone no-vote who rarely misses an opportunity to make a symbolic statement of his absolutist libertarian dogma, impervious to practicality.
The bill was also endorsed by all 50 state attorneys general, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission along with business and consumer groups. The next step is for the House to hop on the bandwagon, then to President Trump for his signature. Since this bill is the equivalent of motherhood and apple pie, it’s risk free for any politician. I can’t think of any issue that would win the unqualified approval of everyone in the country more. In the unlikely event that Trump were to veto it, even Republicans would support his impeachment.
Before 2019, Congress held three hearings and passed 13 anti-robocall laws without much effect. Although the title of the TRACED Act seems fierce enough, its provisions are more hopeful of success than they’re likely to achieve quickly. It tasks telephone carriers to adopt technologies that would verify incoming calls as legitimate before allowing them to get through. Robocallers use auto dialers to “spoof” your caller ID, hiding their real number and showing phony numbers that look like they’re local ─with your same area code and number prefix ─ to give them the appearance that they’re from friends, neighbors or local businesses. The TRACED Act directs the FCC to put the onus on major telecom and cell service providers to better authenticate calls. Let’s hope this happens.
It calls on government agencies, state attorneys general and other non-federal entities to join forces and report to Congress on ideas to improve deterrence and criminal prosecution of robocall scams. That’s a good idea but it’ll take time.
Another provision authorizes the FCC to levy civil penalties of up to $10,000 per call for violators of telemarketing restrictions. However, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation and report, while the FCC has issued $208 million in fines against robocallers since 2015 it’s collected a mere $6,790. Many of these rules violators are offshore and unreachable, and the defrauders are outright criminals engaged in grand larceny. The tech-savvy systems and schemes of these clever and ruthless operators are difficult to combat and their offense rapidly adjusts to our defenses. (Kind of like in the NFL.) Instead of civil fines, some televised public executions might be a better deterrent.
The FCC estimates that Americans received almost 50 billion robocalls last year. That sounds low to me. I have a robocall blocker on my land line and one on my I-phone but about a dozen robocalls a day still get through, not including the ones I get at the office. For arguments sake, let’s assume 300 million telephones get just 10 robocalls calls a day. So, 300 million X 10 X 365 = about 1.1 trillion robocalls. Wow! And they’re not just annoying; the FCC says about half of all robocalls are from scammers looking to cheat people, especially the elderly.
Before the Internet, emails and I-phones, the revolutionary technological breakthrough in telecommunications was the fax machine. But it wasn’t long before that was corrupted by fax spammers. (Besides Hormel’s “spiced ham,” spam is defined as the mass distribution of unsolicited and unwanted advertisements and messages.) Today, spammers are polluting your emails.
Robocalls are the audio incarnation of that. Once upon a time, I was polite to the random telephone solicitor. Hey, the guy on the other end was just trying to make a living. As the abuse of my privacy accelerated, my patience wore thin. So I’d just hang up abruptly. But they kept calling back. Scolding them is momentarily gratifying but it saps your energy, wastes your time and is pointless. Robocallers have thick skins and their time is valuable, so they abruptly hang up on you in mid-tirade. TRACED is a good start but this figures to be a long war.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.