Robocalls are so ubiquitous and obnoxious that they manage to bring Americans together in a time of record partisanship.
In a rare bipartisan, almost unanimous vote Thursday the Senate passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act 97-1.
Nearly 48 billion automated phone calls, colloquially known as “robocalls,” were made in 2018. That’s enough to call every American twice a week. That number is expected to rise to as much as 75 billion in 2019 assuming the increase in call volume continues at the 2017-2018 rate.
Scammers and telemarketers make up the majority of robocalls in America — 37% of 2018’s calls were driven by scams alone for a total near 18 billion scam robocalls.
“There are no red robocalls. There are no blue robocalls. There are only robocalls that drive every family in America crazy every single day,” said Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), who co-sponsored the bill with Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota).
The Senate’s legislation would empower the government to slap those billions of illegal calls with a $10,000 fine each and would give regulators more time to identify scammers. It would also promote call authentication and call blocking, as well as help coordinate enforcement against illegal robocalls.
“This is something that has captured the American people’s interests, something that they wanted to see their elected officials take action on, and that that they are the impetus for this,” said Thune.
Every state attorney general, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and a swath of industry and consumer groups have backed the TRACED Act. The only vote against the act in the Senate was Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).
Robocalls use the same framework as programs like Skype or FaceTime as well as an elaborate number falsifier process called “neighbor spoofing,” which allows the computer to trick your phone into identifying the incoming call as a number similar to the one being called.
Answering any one of these calls increases the likelihood that more calls will be sent in the future, as the system has identified the receiver as someone who answers. And though there are measures that already exist like the National Do Not Call Registry, they have been largely ineffective in curtailing the rate of robocalls.
Moreover, policies to protect rural cell phone users called “call completion mandates” carry the unintended consequence of stopping service providers from blocking suspected robocallers.
Even the TRACED Act is likely to run into problems, as the robocall scammer industry just doesn’t have the money to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars in fines that their activity would generate. Most phone scam operations are small, and are able to quickly hide assets and change names setting up shop elsewhere and starting all over again.
But even if it can’t completely solve the problem, the TRACED Act does strengthen the government’s ability to fight phone scammer and other robocall operations.
“This won’t eliminate all robocalling, but it’ll certainly put a dent in it — and that’s something I think everyone will welcome,” said Thune.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.