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Congress wants to put a stop to illegal robocalls

There aren't many issues lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can rally around. But there's at least one: those annoying robocalls that interrupt your dinner or trick you into answering your cell phone thinking it's a friend or neighbor.

On Thursday, the Senate commerce committee's subcommittee on communications held a hearing to discuss what's being done to limit illegal robocalls and to let people offer input on proposed legislation meant to curb the calls.

Americans received 47.8 billion robocalls last year, according to a Federal Communications Commission report released in February. Nearly 50% of those calls were from scammers. The report also highlighted that the number of complaints about illegal robocalls has been increasing, jumping from 172,000 complaints in 2015 to 232,000 complaints in 2018.

Robocalls use autodialers and recorded messages to make millions of phone calls. Often the numbers that show up in caller ID appear to belong to friends or neighbors, when they're actually "spoofed." These calls hide the real number to trick people into answering the call. The FCC has adopted some policies to reduce the number of calls people get, but Congress is also stepping in to ensure the agency has what it needs to give its policies teeth.

Sens. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, have reintroduced bipartisan legislation called the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Defense Act (aka the TRACED Act).

The bill would improve enforcement policies, such as criminalizing illegal robocalling, and also improve coordination between agencies policing robocalls. It would also require phone companies to use a new technology protocol called SHAKEN/STIR, which would validate that calls are originating from where they claim to be coming from and would allow for faster tracing of illegal calls to find out who's responsible for them.

Thune said it's important to increase the penalties for illegal robocallers, who today face only civil action.

"A credible threat of criminal prosecution is necessary and appropriate for those who knowingly flout laws to prey upon the elderly and other vulnerable populations," Thune said.

But Thune acknowledged that the TRACED Act is not a panacea.

"These improvements may not stop every illegal robocall," he added. "But they will go a long way towards making it safe to answer your phone again."

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a Republican, testified before the subcommittee and agreed that criminalizing illegal robocalling with the threat of prison time for offenders could be a deterrent. Peterson has been leading the effort among state attorneys general to support the bill.

But he also acknowledged in his testimony that there will still likely be challenges in locating and arresting perpetrators.

"One of the challenges, whether or not it is a civil penalty or criminal penalty, is the ability to get our hands around these people," he said. "[It's hard] to actually get them in a headlock."

Peterson, along with others testifying before the committee, including Kevin Rupy, who was representing the trade group USTelecom, and Margot Saunders, who represents the National Consumer Law Center, agreed that the TRACED Act alone won't solve the problem.

"There is no single silver bullet to the robocall problem," Rupy said.

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, was one of several senators who pointed to a Wall Street Journal article that noted that in spite of fines of more than $208 million, the federal government has collected less then $7,000.

Saunders suggested that part of the reason the collection rate is low is because those that are prosecuted don't have the money to pay the fines. Instead, she said, it would be better to go after the legitimate companies that are often paying the low-level scammers to make the robocalls.

"The way to actually increase enforcement is to go after the people who are paying them for those leads," Saunders said.

Thune concluded the hearing by noting that the bogus calls aren't just annoying, they have public safety consequences as well.

"There seems to be an inherent danger when people are no longer picking up legitimate calls that might relate to their own health and safety," he said.