Federal regulators are cracking down on unwanted telemarketing calls and text messages by implementing strict new rules on companies that make them and by giving Americans more ways to refuse them.
The measures approved by the Federal Communications Commission Thursday allow consumers to put a stop to telemarketing simply by telling the companies not to call again or by any other "reasonable way at any time," rather than having to file and mail complicated forms or jump through other hoops.
They also clear the way for telecom companies to use technologies designed to block autodialed calls and text messages. And they establish stricter definitions of autodialing so that telemarketers can't wriggle out of the rules.
"Clever lawyers have fed the explosion in robo-calls by claiming that if the company substitutes software for hardware to drive the calls … that they are exempt from our rules," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "Today, we do what Congress gave us the authority to do — and that is to keep the enforcement of the law up to date with technology."
The FCC's new rules also address what happens when a consumer takes over a phone number previously held by somebody else. Under what Wheeler called a "one-strike" rule, telemarketers can only call a reassigned number once — giving them the chance to hear from the new owner of the number that he or she doesn't want to be called again.
For years, consumers have been able to put their phone numbers on a nationwide Do-Not-Call registry aimed at thwarting unwanted phone calls. But the FCC still receives thousands of complaints every month about robo-calls, which represent the largest category of complaints the agency receives. The agency said it received 215,000 such complaints last year.
Robo-calling has gotten some high-profile attention in recent weeks amid a decision by PayPal to update its corporate policies.
The company's new user agreement, which goes into effect July 1, requires its customers to receive robo-calls so that PayPal can update them on account activity and resolve disputes. But the policy also explicitly opens consumers up to promotions and surveys, and users must agree to the terms if they want to continue using PayPal.
The only way to opt out of receiving the calls is to write to PayPal's customer service, but that still requires customers to agree to the new terms of service. The FCC said that the move has inspired "serious concerns" at the agency and could run afoul of its existing regulations on robo-calling.
Others worry that the FCC's new rules on automated calls could encourage frivolous litigation under the rules, or hurt innocent companies.
"The order penalizes businesses and institutions acting in good faith to reach their customers using modern technology," said Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the FCC last week that said the agency's rules make no distinction between "aggressive phone-bullies" who cold-call Americans and ordinary businesses simply trying to reach their own customers.
Wheeler said that while banks should be allowed to call consumers in case of fraud, and doctors should be able to call in a medical emergency, those purposes "should not be used as a smokescreen" to justify abusive calls.