Congress Should Consider Expanding FCC Powers to Punish Robocallers, Official Says

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By Paul Barbagallo  


Congress should consider expanding the Federal Communications Commission's powers to punish fraudulent telemarketers who make auto-dialed, prerecorded calls known as “robocalls,” an FCC official told a Senate subcommittee July 10.

Eric Bash, associate chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, testifying at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance, said that Congress, for starters, could allow the FCC to impose forfeitures on nonlicensee robocall violators without first having to issue a citation. Lawmakers also could expand the current statute of limitation from one year to at least two years, while increasing the maximum penalties that the commission can levy on such nonlicensee robocallers, Bash said.

Bash said the FCC has over the past decade issued more than 500 citations and levied 10 fines, totalling $3.5 million, for violations of FCC robocall rules.

Robocalls on the Rise

“The prevalence of … robocalls is on the rise,” Bash said in his testimony. “This is because of the ready availability and low cost of phone service and the software needed to make the calls, as well as the ability of callers to 'spoof' the number from which they are calling in an attempt to disguise who they are and avoid detection. It is no surprise, then, that robocalls are an increasing source of consumer complaints in recent years at the FCC.”

Complaints about robocalls doubled between 2010 and 2012, Bash said.

“While this is only a fraction of the total number of robocall complaints filed each year at various agencies, the volume at the FCC alone still speaks volumes about the extent of the problem,” he added.

The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, receives more than 200,000 complaints about robocalls per month, representing the single largest type of complaint in terms of raw numbers, Bash said.

To help the address the growing problem, he said lawmakers could revise the Truth In Caller ID Act (Pub. L. No. 111-331), which prohibits caller-ID spoofing when performed by persons in the United States with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.

Former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has in the past proposed broadening the scope of the act to apply to persons outside the United States when their spoofing is directed at people inside the United States; clarifying whether the existing restrictions should apply to providers of voice-over-internet protocol services that enable only outbound calls; and authorizing the FCC to regulate third-party spoofing services.

Such recommendations should still be considered going forward, Bash said.

“Robocallers have the technology to place massive amounts of calls, with a great potential--this is a criminal sandbox,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the subcommittee. “The fraudsters shouldn't be the only ones taking advantage of advances in technology; we should also be using it to stop them.”

In taking action on its own, the FCC last year adopted rules to require “prior express written consent” for all auto-dialed or prerecorded telemarketing calls to wireless telephone numbers and for prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential landline phone numbers. Those rules also eliminated the “established business relationship” exemption that had applied to prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential lines.

FTC Cites Technology Challenges

Since 2009, the vast majority of sales robocalls are illegal without a consumer's prior written authorization, Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC's Division of Marketing Practices told the committee.

However, Greisman cited fraudulent robocallers “who often hide out in other countries in an attempt to escape detection and punishment” and advances in technology as ongoing challenges in protecting consumers from unwanted and fraudulent telemarketing calls.

By using voice over internet protocol (VoIP), she explained, scammers can very cheaply blast prerecorded messages to thousands of telephone numbers and hide their true location and identity using fake caller IDs and foreign shell corporations.

To get at these problems, the FTC coordinates its efforts with both domestic and international enforcement agencies. It also sponsored a “robocall summit” to discuss current issues.

Although the worldwide transfer from traditional telecommunications infrastructure to VoIP will continue to present challenges, the commission is dedicated to rooting out fraud and protecting consumer privacy, Greisman concluded.

At the hearing, Bash and Greisman also discussed their enforcement of do-not-call telemarketing rules (see related report).

Kevin G. Rupy, senior director for law and policy for the United States Telecom Association; Michael F. Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel for CTIA--The Wireless Association; Matthew Stein, chief technology officer at Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc.; and Aaron Foss, freelance software developer for Nomorobo, also presented testimony at the hearing.


Full text of Bash's prepared testimony is available at

Greisman's prepared testimony is available at

Further information on the hearing, including links to member opening statements, witness testimony, and an archived webcast of the hearing, is available at

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