Anti-Robocall Bill Gets Bipartisan Backing

Besieged by nearly five billion unwanted automated calls from telemarketers and scammers last month, Americans are poised to get relief from robocalls under a bipartisan compromise bill introduced in the House on Thursday.

The measure would require phone carriers to offer screening technology to identify and block spam calls at no additional cost to customers within 18 months of the bill’s being enacted.

Known as the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act, the legislation was first introduced in February by Democrats, who finally reached a deal Thursday with Republicans on the bill’s language.

The revamped bill was unveiled by the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Frank Pallone Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, and the committee’s ranking member, Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon. It would apply to both wireless phones and land lines, according to Mr. Pallone, who said he was optimistic about the bill’s chances of winning House and Senate approval and being signed by President Trump.

“At one point, this was just a nuisance. Now there are so many indications that this is putting people in danger,” Mr. Pallone said in an interview Thursday. “You have these scammers now disguised as the I.R.S. You have those that are disguised as police officers. From personal experience, I think it undermines people’s faith in the phone system and they don’t answer.”

The compromise between Democrats and Republicans on the committee came one month after the Senate overwhelmingly approved separate anti-robocall legislation to respond to constituent furor over unwanted calls. Consumer protection advocates said the Senate version did not go far enough to address the problem.

“A lot of calls are scams, and those need to be stopped,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center. “The Republicans and Democrats have recognized they need to be aggressive in addressing robocalls, and this bill is a reflection of that.”

The National Consumer Law Center, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, took part in the drafting of the bill, which is scheduled for discussion next week. The group supported a class-action lawsuit against Hilton Grand Vacations Company, in which consumers accused the company of having humans push a button on its automated dialing system to avoid meeting the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of a robocall. Hilton had disputed that it violated the law and won a federal court judgment, which the plaintiffs appealed in January in federal court.

“If the F.C.C. does what this bill tells it to do, it will stop a lot of the calls, and that’s a big deal,” Ms. Saunders said.

Another key aspect of the legislation would extend the statute of limitations for filing robocall-related complaints with the F.C.C. Consumers now have one year to file. Under the bill, they would get three years — and in some cases, up to four years — to bring a complaint.

A spokesman for the F.C.C. declined to comment Thursday. The White House also declined to comment.

A top lobbying group for the wireless industry signaled its support for the push against robocalls.

“The wireless industry is committed to combating illegal robocalls and protecting consumers, and we thank committee leadership for tackling this important issue,” said Kelly Cole, senior vice president for government affairs at CTIA, a wireless industry trade group based in Washington. “We look forward to working on getting robocall legislation enacted.”

The scourge of robocalls has boosted the popularity of websites such as YouMail, which offers a free robocall blocking app, in addition to paid services. According to YouMail, there were around five billion robocalls in May, about double the number there were two years ago.

Under the legislation, the F.C.C. would be required to report to Congress about its efforts to update a database of phone number changes — so that callers would have a person’s most recent contact information and avoid calling an old phone number.

“They won’t have the excuse anymore when they meant to call you and they called me,” Ms. Saunders said.

Mr. Pallone said Americans had become so fed up with receiving unwanted calls, including from foreign countries, that they could inadvertently miss out on important calls.

“More and more, I just don’t answer the phone,” he said.


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