Legislation could open cell phones to robocalls

The communications landscape has changed dramatically since the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was passed in 1991, and a House bill would bring it up to date by treating cellular phones more like traditional wireline phones.

But H.R. 3035, The Mobile Information Call Act of 2011, could be either a boon for customers by enabling better communications or a bane that opens up cell phones to harassing robocalls, witnesses told a House panel Nov. 4.

“In today’s world, with more and more individuals relying solely on mobile phones, it is becoming even more important to permit informational calls to mobile devices,” said Stephen Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, which often needs to contact customers about shipments. He told the Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on Communications and Technology that “upwards of 50 percent of all contact numbers provided are, in fact, cell phone numbers,” and that current laws prevent automated or prerecorded calls to those numbers.

But removing that prohibition would lead to abuses by telemarketers and debt collectors, said Delicia Reynolds Hand, legislative director National Association of Consumer Advocates, who also testified on behalf of the National Consumer Law Center.

“Harassing robocalls on consumer cell phones will become the new norm if H.R. 3035 becomes law in its present form,” Hand said. In current economic conditions, “consumers need increased protection, not additional exposure to robocalls and harassment from debt collectors.”

When the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was passed to protect customers from intrusive telephone marketing, it allowed many types of informational and businesses calls to be made to traditional landline telephones. But cell phones were a relatively new technology at that time, and virtually all unsolicited calls to cellular numbers were banned under the TCPA.

In 1991 there were only 7.5 million cell phone customers, and most of them paid for incoming calls, so all telemarketing and prerecorded or automated calls were prohibited to those numbers. Today there are about 300 million cellular subscribers and landlines are being replaced in many households. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four households is wireless.

These shifts have made it difficult for some businesses that rely on automated calls to reach customers for legitimate purposes and for school systems or government agencies to reach students and families with information about snow days and other emergencies.

“This shift creates challenges for companies and government agencies that want to provide legitimate informational calls to individuals who are not reachable in any other way and who may value such calls,” said Michael Altschul, general counsel at CTIA – The Wireless Association.

The bill is intended to bring regulations for contacting cell phones into line with those for wireline service. Automatic dialing systems would be redefined so that automated dialing of specific lists of numbers would be allowed, and indiscriminate generation of numbers or dialing in sequence still would be prohibited.

Faith Schwartz, executive director of the HOPE NOW Alliance, a mortgage industry group that supports loan counseling as an alternative to foreclosure, said consumers would benefit from the proposed law.

“The single greatest obstacle to keeping a delinquent borrower in their home is the inability to contact them and make them aware of the workout options available,” Schwartz said. “We know from experience that often borrowers in financial distress do not open mail, cancel their land-line service or increasing rely on wireless phones as their primary or exclusive communications device.”

But Hand said the current law is sufficiently modern and flexible and should be preserved, and that the bill’s proposed definition of “prior business relationship” would be too broad for cellular protection. Emergency and consent provisions already allow contact to any number, and cell phones are kept private for a reason, she said. “H.R. 3035 is simply unnecessary and potentially harmful.”

Indiana Attorney General Gregory Zoeller expressed concern that the new bill would interfere with enforcement of state laws.

“H.R. 3035 will create obstacles to effective enforcement of state consumer protection laws and go far beyond the stated goal of giving debt collectors a new avenue to contact debtors,” Zoeller said. “The state proposes that Congress instead eliminate any suggestion from the TCPA that state statutes regulating interstate telephone and fax harassment are pre-empted.”



About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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