Robocall Regulations Revised

Adjustments take into account increased calling to mobile numbers.

Not that this is exactly news, but most of us don't like to be the recipients of robocalls. Lawmakers have heard us loud and clear, enacting and, over time, modifying the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) with the purpose of preventing consumers from receiving unwanted, unsolicited calls. Sadly, despite repeated good faith efforts to restrict and/or clamp down on those that abuse unwitting and witting consumers alike, the calls persist.

Even recent efforts by federal regulators and "concerned parties" (read: third-party entities that make calls on behalf of others, marketing entities, or anyone else that might be part of the chain between someone trying to sell something and the consumer) combined with the presence of a very aggressive class action bar whose members salivate at the opportunity to bring on victims as clients, have done little to deter determined robocallers. The fact is that the calls just keep coming. Relentlessly. And they continue to be successful. One interesting factoid: People tend to be much more interested in returning calls to numbers they don't recognize from mobile devices than they ever were -- or are -- from traditional landlines. So obviously, that's where robocallers continue to direct their efforts.

Two interesting developments in TCPA policy and regulation took place this summer to address the increasing use of the mobile robocall. First, in July, and under increasing pressure from consumers and the FCC, a group of leading mobile service providers met to address the issue, which is currently the single largest source of consumer complaints the FCC receives. AT&T, Apple, and Google -- three of the most powerful players in the mobile industry -- are leading the charge, with other major players involved at differing levels.

One of the issues they're confronting is whether or not carriers can -- or will -- block calls to mobile devices. While AT&T originally claimed that such action was beyond its authority, it has since back-pedaled a bit. After the group's original meeting, it became clear that while the FCC does not require robocall blocking and filtering, it strongly encourages phone service providers to offer those capabilities at no cost to consumers who have been victimized by the calls. While some consumers must find robocalls effective, for most of us they create a problem that's beyond a mere annoyance.

Second is the addition of a third exception regarding unsolicited calls to mobile devices. The first and second exceptions apply to calls made for emergency purposes and calls made with the consumer's express prior consent. The new exception specifies that, in a clearly defined and limited way, entities can now place calls or texts to mobile devices for the purpose of "collecting debts owed to or secured by the federal government."

This change is a direct response to information gleaned from a 2015 Treasury Department study showing that the government has (...wait for it...) $1.3 TRILLION of non-tax receivables, of which $162.1 billion is delinquent. This includes, among many other things, outstanding student loan debt and judgments decided in the government's favor that have yet to be paid.

Under the new provisions, a debtor can receive no more than three calls per 30-day period, and only during the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Federal debt collection robocalls cannot exceed 60 seconds, and consumers have the right to stop them at any time. Entities acting on the government's behalf can make debt collection calls to the wireless phone number provided by the debtor at the time the debt was incurred, to a wireless number subsequently provided to the debt's owner by the debtor, or to a number that the debt owner has acquired from "an independent source," although the entity making the calls on behalf of the debt holder has the obligation to scrub its numbers regularly to ensure the accuracy of dialed numbers.

Many areas of TCPA interpretation remain foggy. The encouraging part of these revisions is that the FCC is working to protect consumers in a way that recognizes that mobile technologies have changed the way we live and work.

Separately, and just in time for the last few weeks of the election season, here's this tidbit... in August of this year, the FCC granted "limited approval for federal candidates, political committees and political parties to collect political contributions through text message campaigns." There are limitations, for sure. As a start, note the word "federal," which ostensibly should prevent your local dog catcher from trying to raise funds this way, but there's nothing to say that he or she won't try. For more information, see CTIA guidelines identifying the rules. In the meantime, don't be any more annoyed than you are already when a candidate or party looks for money in a new and annoying way.

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