Congress is ready to attack a common enemy: robocallers

By Catie Edmondson
New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Rep. Darren Soto’s phone rang just a half-hour into this week’s House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the surge of robocalls clogging the nation’s cellphone lines. He ducked off to take the call only to hear a recorded voice float a lucrative offer to buy his home.

“We’re all being inundated,” Soto, D-Fla., said plaintively when his turn came to speak at the hearing.

Bipartisanship may be in short supply in the 116th Congress, but Republicans and Democrats have found a common enemy. Swamped by complaints from peeved constituents, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in both chambers are promising action to halt the influx of automated calls. Bipartisan, bicameral bills would hold robocallers legally liable for the frauds they are pushing, impose stronger penalties on phone scammers and make telecommunications companies disclose and verify the origin of incoming calls.

“Whenever people come up to me at home, there’s two things they tell me,” Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., said. “They say, ‘Support the president.’ The second thing they say is, ‘When are you going to do something about these robocalls?’”

Americans received 48 billion robocalls last year, and unsolicited dials are expected to make up almost half of all calls that Americans receive by the end of 2019, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking service. Only a fifth of those calls are considered legitimate automated alerts, like a reminder of an upcoming appointment.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are teaming up to pass legislation that will allow fraudulent callers to be held responsible. In the House, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who leads the Energy and Commerce Committee, is shepherding a package of legislation that would impose stronger penalties on phone scammers and require telecom providers to adopt authentication tools to enable phone carriers to disclose and verify the origin of an incoming call.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Pallone said. “That’s why it is so important that we address this problem from every side.”

He will find support on the other side of the Capitol from Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who partnered with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., to introduce similar legislation. Their bill has passed out of committee and awaits a full Senate vote.

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