Senate Bulks Up FCC Robocall Fining Authority

On its way out the door for the Memorial Day holiday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act (S. 151).

The bill was introduced in January, co-sponsored by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and has the the backing of Senate Commerce Committee chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

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The bill would give the FCC civil fining authority of up to $10,000 per call for those who "intentionally flout" telemarketing restrictions. That could add up given that, by some estimates, spam calls make up over 40% of all calls.

It would also extend the statute of limitations for taking action against illegal robocalls from one year to three.

"The TRACED Act would give the FCC more flexibility to enforce rules in the short term, while setting in motion consultations to increase prosecutions of violations, which often require international cooperation," the bills sponsors said.

The bill also:

"Brings together the Department of Justice, FCC, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Commerce, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and other relevant federal agencies, as well as state attorneys general and other non-federal entities to identify and report to Congress on improving deterrence and criminal prosecution at the federal and state level of robocall scams.

"Requires voice service providers to adopt call authentication technologies, enabling a telephone carrier to verify that incoming calls are legitimate before they reach consumers’ phones.

"Directs the FCC to initiate a rulemaking to help protect subscribers from receiving unwanted calls or texts from callers."

Sen. Thune called the bill "puts a bullseye on the scam artists and criminals who are making it difficult for many Americans to answer the phone with any bit of confidence about who’s on the other end of the line."

“As abusive robocalls continue to flood our phones, we applaud the Senate on passage of the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, and commend the bipartisan leadership of Senators Thune and Markey," said NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, in a statement. "The TRACED Act is important step to help alleviate Illegal robocalls, and keep consumers safe from scammers.”

Related: FCC Warns About One-Ring Calls that Ring False

FCC chair Ajit Pai is proposing making it clear that carriers are allowed to block robocalls before they get to their subs, so long as the subs also have the ability to reject that pre-screening.

Pai had a lot to say on the subject following the bill's passage:

“I commend the U.S. Senate for passing the TRACED Act and Senators Thune and Markey for leading this bipartisan effort," he said in a statement. "The TRACED Act would help strengthen the FCC’s ability to combat illegal robocalls, and we would welcome these additional tools to fight this scourge. Further powers like increased fines, longer statutes of limitations, and removing citation requirements [that] obligate us to warn some robocallers before penalizing them, will significantly improve our already strong robocall enforcement efforts.

“I also welcome the Act’s provisions that would increase coordination with state Attorneys General. This is a vital partnership in the fight against unwanted robocalls and one we already are working hard at. Just today, I am meeting with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter to discuss his efforts to fight scammers, and earlier this week I attended the National Association of Attorneys General Consumer Protection Conference. It’s important that federal and state partners work together—and engage productively with private stakeholders—to address this important consumer protection priority.”

“I applaud the Senate for taking an important step to crack down on unwanted robocalls and spoofed calls by passing the TRACED Act," said ACA Connects President Matt Polka. "This bill would allow industry to continue to drive implementation of call authentication technology on a timely basis, while recognizing that smaller providers may require more time to fully implement the technology. The bill would also strengthen FCC authority to bring robocall scammers to justice. Senators Thune and Markey and their many co-sponsors deserve praise for working on a bipartisan basis to address a matter of urgent concern for American consumers.”

“Americans are fed up with robocalls. They are tired of scam artists and fraudsters placing illegal calls to their phones at all hours of the day and night," said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. "So I want to commend Senator Thune and Senator Markey for their bipartisan leadership. Their TRACED Act provides the FCC with additional authorities and tools so that we can continue our crack down on these annoying calls. I look forward to continuing to work with members of Congress and my colleagues as we combat unlawful robocalls.”

“This is a very big deal for industry’s multi-pronged effort to battle back against illegal robocalls," said USTelecom President Jonathan Spalter. "Today the Senate delivered a loud and clear message to the criminals who scam and spoof consumers: more blocking, more fines and more criminal enforcement is coming.

“USTelecom is on the barricades of this anti-robocall movement. We are investing millions of dollars in state-of-the-art authentication and verification technologies, partnering daily with federal and state law and civil enforcement officials to trace illegal calls, and everyday offering more tools and apps for consumers to reclaim their devices." 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.