LAST FALL, renowned economist Paul Romer got an early-morning call from an unfamiliar number. It was the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, informing him he had won the Nobel Prize — but he let it go to voice mail, because he had been inundated with robocalls lately and assumed this was only more unwanted ringing.
Americans, whether they are prizewinning academics or everyday citizens, should not have to be wary of answering their phones. But the 60 billion to 75 billion spam calls they are expected to receive this year give them little choice. New technologies allow telemarketers and fraudsters alike to ping thousands of phones for less than a penny a call, and while the Federal Communications Commission has been vowing to step up its game against the scourge, the agency has been slow to adopt the necessary measures. The good news is Congress may finally have decided to do something about the problem. The bad news is that something may not be enough.
The Senate Commerce Committee has advanced a bipartisan bill that scales up fines against illegal robocallers and requires service providers to adopt authentication systems that could root out spoofed numbers — the source of many of Americans’ woes. The Traced Act, introduced by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), would also give the FCC more time to catch bad actors and punish them without issuing a warning first. It’s a smart step in scaring off and shutting down scammers, though even better would be requiring companies not only to tell consumers that a call comes from a fake number but also to offer them free blocking services.
Then there’s an issue the Traced Act wouldn’t solve: the telemarketers and others using real numbers who also cause consumers a headache. Some of these are clear violations of the Do Not Call Registry. Others come from debt collectors, political parties and others who are exempt from those rules but who still are not supposed to dial Americans en masse without their express consent. Many of these pests get away with it because of an outdated definition of an auto-dialer. A court ruled that the Obama-era FCC’s attempt to beef up the standard was overbroad; the current FCC has sought comment on the question, but advocates worry the loopholes will become only larger. Congress has an opportunity to step in here, too, with a definition such as the one Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) offers in a House bill.
Congress is right to take on the robocalling contagion, and fraudsters are a sensible place for lawmakers to start. But it can’t be where they end if the aim is for Americans to be able to pick up their phones again without concern.