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Newly Enacted TRACED Act Aims to Reduce Robocalls

A man handling packages will speaking on the phone and looking at his computer.

On December 31, President Trump signed the bipartisan TRACED Act into law, which gives government agencies and law enforcement more tools to pursue individuals and companies who breach telephone consumer protection laws. The TRACED Act will toughen punishments and quicken government and telecommunications industry efforts to stop robocalls.

The act includes penalty increases for those who knowingly make illegal robocalls and requires phone companies to authenticate calls to determine if the call is real or a robocall. Government regulators, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now have four years to pursue scammers; a one-year statute of limitations was formerly in place. It will require the FCC to enact rules to help protect consumers from spam calls and texts. The FCC must annually report robocall enforcement and recommend legislation, the Attorney General can create a task force to prosecute offenders. The FCC will also have to determine when providers can block calls and unauthenticated calls and texts from reaching users. The Department of Justice can prosecute offenders. Fines for robocalls can be up to $10,000 per call without having to issue a warning. The act was authored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).

“I applaud Congress for working in a bipartisan manner to combat illegal robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing. And I thank the President and Congress for the additional tools and flexibility that this law affords us,” Ajit Pai, FCC Chairman, said. “Specifically, I am glad that the agency now has a longer statute of limitations during which we can pursue scammers and I welcome the removal of a previously-required warning we had to give to unlawful robocallers before imposing tough penalties.”

In 2019, the FCC implemented STIR/SHAKEN, which allows wireless carriers and home phone providers to authenticate calls and fight spammers by using digital fingerprints or tokens to verify that the number making a call is the same number appearing on a Caller ID. The act requires the adoption of the STIR/SHAKEN framework and prevents carriers from charging for this service, while it protects carriers from reasonable mistakes. 

“This historic legislation will provide American consumers with even greater protection against annoying unsolicited robocalls,” Stephanie Grisham, White House Press Secretary, said. “American families deserve control over their communications, and this legislation will update our laws and regulations to stiffen penalties, increase transparency, and enhance government collaboration to stop unwanted solicitation.”

Robocalls are not only an annoying high-tech threat, but they can also prey on and take advantage of the vulnerable. Scammers use spoofing technologies to mask these calls or make them appear to be coming from a legitimate or even familiar number. The new legislation will not prevent all robocalls, however, it will help to deter the “casual” spam call. The new law will make it easier for people to identify robocalls, so consumers do not answer these spam calls.

The law does not clearly define “consumer consent” to receive calls. According to a Consumer Reports survey, about 70 percent of US consumers will not answer the phone if they do not recognize the number calling, while 62 percent of users responded that they let most calls go to voicemail.

“With this legislation, phone companies will be required to give all consumers meaningful new protections against these calls and Americans will finally get some relief from the ringing telephone,” Maureen Mahoney, Consumer Reports policy analyst, said. However, consumer advocates argue that the lack of clarification for how consumers can grant or consent could present a loophole for scammers.

It will take time to make a difference, as there are billions of robocalls each year. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel stated a record $120 million fine against a robocaller is like “emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.” There were more than 54 billion robocalls made in the United States in 2019, the equivalent of approximately 164 calls for each person affected. The legislation should help to eventually reduce the number of spam calls.

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