What You Need to Know About the Latest Anti-Robocall Legislation

On December 30, 2019, President Donald Trump signed a new bill into law designed to slow the plague of robocalls — telemarketing calls using both an autodialer and a recorded message — faced by American consumers, who received an estimated 48 billion in 2018 alone.  The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act gives regulators a number of new tools to address the problem, and requires carriers to be more proactive in fighting robocalls.  Robocalls aren’t going to disappear any time soon, but the new bill should help stem the tide.

A TRACED Act Primer

The full name of the new law is the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act, which identifies its bipartisan sponsors and spells out its goals.  The full text is available from Congress’ website, but unless you’re a lawyer you will probably find the layperson’s summary more useful.

The law lays out a number of new provisions, which tackle the problem of robocalls —– and especially robocall scams — from different directions. These provisions include the following: 

  • Improved Enforcement Tools.  The new law lengthens the statute of limitations, makes it easier to prosecute violators and increases the potential fines.
  • Greater Responsibilities for Service Providers.  Under the TRACED Act, telephone service providers will share a higher level of responsibility for addressing the robo dialer problem.  For example, scammers often “spoof” caller ID, so that the name or number that appears on your display — often a trusted number, like your bank or a government office — isn’t where the call actually originates.  The new law requires carriers to improve authentication for caller ID information, and to cooperate with each other and with authorities to help identify sources of robocalls.
  • Consumer Protections.  Several consumer protections are baked into the act.  One prevents carriers from charging you extra for delivering these new services.  Another provides the option of blocking robocall numbers, and sets limits on the number and type of callers who can contact you without your permission.

Future Initiatives in the TRACED Act

Several sections of the TRACED Act are less concrete.  Rather than addressing robocalls directly, they identify areas where further action, oversight or feedback is required.  Section 5, for example, calls for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the attorney general to create a task force to monitor the law’s enforcement and find ways to improve the process.

The FCC is responsible for overseeing the law’s protections, so other sections direct the commission to create and implement a framework of new rules and consumer protections to make life more difficult for scammers.

Other initiatives focus on specific areas like working with carriers to identify the sources of illegal robocalls and addressing the alarming rise in robocalls to hospitals and other care facilities.

How the TRACED Act Will Help Limit Robocalls

This new piece of legislation aims both to provide regulators with new enforcement tools and to remove some existing obstacles.

Under existing anti-robocall law, the statute of limitations was short and the enforcement process clumsy.  The FCC was required to issue a citation to the rogue caller for a deliberate violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and the statute of limitations was just one year.  That made prosecutions extremely difficult, effectively giving a pass to first-time offenders.

The new law eliminates the need for an initial citation, and the new four-year statute of limitations offers plenty of time for prosecutions.  The new penalty of up to $10,000 per call adds up pretty quickly when applied to thousands or millions of calls, and theoretically should make the law more of a deterrent.

Other provisions making it harder for scammers and unethical businesses to get phone numbers and forcing carriers to validate caller ID information should also make life more difficult for malicious players.

Robocall Scams Aren’t Going Away Soon

The new law doesn’t mean that robocalls are going away any time soon, or that there’s any less need for you to be personally vigilant. Many of the act’s provisions simply call for more study (without a defined timeline) or avoid defining specific actions to be taken. For example, Section 5 calls for the Attorney General to pull together a working group to study prosecutions under the earlier Communications Act, and identify ways the new law can be used to better effect. It’s useful work, but it’s not of any immediate help. Hammering out a way to trace calls originating outside the U.S. will take time and involve multiple governments, regulatory agencies and industry organizations.

Similarly, caller ID validation won’t necessarily happen right away.  Carriers have 18 months to implement the technology where available, which can push this feature out to mid-2021, and extensions can be requested.  Carriers in rural areas where the standard technology won’t work only have to demonstrate that they’re making a “reasonable effort” to provide some form of validation.

It will likely take a year or two for telephone carriers to push through their necessary updates and for police and regulatory agencies to get up to speed and begin using their new enforcement tools.  Until then, you’ll still be largely on your own.

Protect Yourself With Spokeo

In the interim, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from scammers.  One of the most powerful is to sign up for an account at Spokeo, so you can take advantage of our powerful reverse phone number lookup tool.  A quick search can tell you at a glance whether the number you see is associated with any known scam activity.

Reverse phone lookup will remain one of the best tools in your arsenal, even after the TRACED Act reaches full effectiveness.  Scammers tend to flout the law, and will almost certainly find ways to work around the law’s protections.  Even legitimate companies will be quick to identify and exploit any loopholes in the law, if they see an advantage in doing so.  Using phone lookup to screen your incoming calls keeps you in control regardless of how well the new law plays out in practice.

References: