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‘Everybody Hates Them:’ Vt. Congressman Eyes Unwanted and Predatory Robocalls

Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont says legislation that would crack down on robocalls is nearing passage in a House committee

The very word can make many consumers’ blood boil: robocalls.

They’re often annoying, or worse, downright illegal—when they’re trying to scam you out of your money.

Bipartisan support is now growing in Washington, D.C. to hang up on many of the robocallers, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, said Tuesday.

“It’s a problem that’s really bad—and it’s only gotten worse,” Welch said at a press conference discussing legislation aimed at cracking down on unwanted and predatory robocalls.

Welch is an original cosponsor on legislation aimed at helping, known as the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act.

According to bullet points describing the legislation provided by Congressman Welch’s office, the proposals have the following goals:

  • Amend the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to ensure that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the authority and the tools to take strong, quick action when they track down robocallers;
  • Allow consumers to revoke consent they had previously given to receive calls;
  • Codify a reassigned number database to put robocallers on notice when a telephone number they may have previously been authorized to call has been given to a new customer who has not authorized their call;
  • Limit the number of robocalls exempted from the TCPA under the FCC’s rules;
  • Require calls to have verified caller identification information associated with a call before the call can be put through; and
  • Extend the statute of limitations from one year to four years for callers violating robocall prohibitions.

In a news release, Welch’s aides said the bill is nearing approval by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications, and which includes Welch as a member.

“Everybody hates them—it’s not a Republican or Democrat deal,” Welch said of unwanted robocalls, especially scam attempts.

Welch cited an estimate that 47 billion robocalls were made in the United States in 2018, which he said was a 64% increase over 2016 figures.

In 2016, scams that started with robocalls cost 22 million Americans $9.5-billion total, Welch said.

Last month, 4 million robocalls rang on Vermont cell phones and landlines, the congressman added.

“I slam down the phone every time,” Kathryn Ottinger, 84, said of robocalls, adding that she feels bombarded by them daily in her Shelburne home. “They’ve taken away your privacy—like I have no rights any more. They have more rights than I do.”

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, said the nation’s laws need to catch up to technology.

“We are going to continue to confront this issue on so many different levels as borders and jurisdictions perhaps are not as clear, based on technology,” Donovan said of the rapid pace of technological advancement—which is also helping fraudsters find new avenues of reaching targets.

Donovan added that of the roughly 13,000 calls to his office’s consumer protection line each year, the significant majority of them lately have pertained to complaints about robocalls.

However, the attorney general has said catching phone scammers is a huge challenge, because it is so difficult to even know where they’re operating from. He said he’s optimistic action by Congress would provide more teeth to enforcement agencies to catch bad actors in the robocall world.

Legislation similar to the House bill is also pending in the U.S. Senate.

Those bills have raised some concerns, including from business groups who worry that well-meaning companies may face new hurdles in reaching their customers with valuable and wanted information, such as an update on a pending shipment that may be provided through an automated text message.

For Ottinger, it’s the unwanted and fraudulent calls that have her begging for relief—especially because she said she has heard numerous warnings about scammers targeting seniors.

“I want them stopped,” she said of the scam attempts.

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