Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 6/4/2015.
I had just fired up the lawn mower when my youngest son handed me my cellphone. “It’s for you,” he said, and walked away. On the other end was a pleasant female voice. “Good afternoon,” she said, and paused. “Hello,” I answered. “This is Diane from Holiday Cruise Lines. Do you have a minute to talk?” she said, then paused again. “Not really, Diane,” I replied. “I’m just getting ready to cut the grass.” “OK, I can see you’re busy, but I’d like to talk to you about a great deal.” “Really, it’s not a good time,” I replied. “How would you like a free cruise?” she continued, apparently suffering from hearing loss. “I’m not interested, and really, I need to hang up now,” I said, my blood pressure beginning to spike. “But aren’t you interested in a free cruise?” At that point, it hit me: I was talking to a machine.
Ordinarily, I’m pretty good at spotting a robocall, but this one was pretty good. Automated calling technology has evolved considerably since the old days when computer-generated voices sounded tinny, halting and almost comical — sort of like the “Greetings, Professor Falken; shall we play a game?” voice used by Joshua in 1983’s “WarGames.” Today’s technology can trick you into thinking you’re speaking with a real person. Companies that use robocall technology know that many people are less likely to hang up quickly if they perceive there’s a real, fleshand- blood, just-trying-to-makeends- meet person on the other end.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, unwanted calls and texts are the top consumer complaint to the FCC. The FCC received more than 215,000 Telephone Consumer Protection Act complaints in 2014. And since 44 percent of Americans have cut their landline service and rely exclusively on our mobile devices, concerns are rising about how telemarketers and scammers are targeting these devices.
It would be hard to find anybody who likes getting a robocall or unsolicited marketing text, and enforcement cases are mounting. In March, a company called Caribbean Cruise Lines paid $500,000 to settle claims brought in Florida federal court after allegations of billions of unsolicited robocalls. And the aforementioned Holiday Cruise Lines was the subject of a massive class-action suit after allegedly sending unsolicited text messages.
This week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is circulating a proposal to give consumers more power to stop unwanted robocalls and texts to cell-phones. The proposal would close loopholes and strengthen laws already on the books.
“Consumers have the right to control the calls and texts they receive,” Wheeler said in a blog post. “And the FCC is moving to enforce those rights and protect consumers against robocalls, spam texts, and telemarketing.”
Here are a few provisions of his proposal:
- Consumers would get more power to stop robocalls. Under the proposal, you and I could revoke our consent to receive robocalls and robotexts “in any reasonable way and at any time.” (This would apply to both cell phones and landlines.)
- Carriers would be given greater ability to deploy software to block robocalls.
- The status of reassigned numbers would be clarified. For example, if you get new phone service, and you are assigned a number that was previously used by someone else, your new number could already be on calling lists. (This
defense has been used by some robocallers to justify calling people who have recently started using reassigned numbers.)
- Under the proposal, robocallers could call one time and must stop
- What “autodialer” means would be clarified. The term “autodialer” describes a wide variety of technologies used to dial “random or sequential numbers.” Under the proposal, it would be more strictly defined so companies using the technology can’t defend it by saying changes in technology gives them a pass from following the rules.
- Limited exceptions would be allowed. There are times when robocalls might be beneficial (such as when your child’s school announces a closing or your bank must alert you of possible fraud). The proposal would establish definitions of what is — and is not — acceptable use of the technology.
- Existing protections provided by the Telephone Consumer Protect Act of 1991 would remain in place.
- Your and my right to choose what kind of calls we receive would be affirmed.
Some have expressed concern the new rules could be devastating to some industries (such as political polling) but most consumer advocates have argued consumers need additional protections against rich and tech-savvy telemarketing companies.
And new technology (including the popular Nomorobo — which blocks cellphone telemarketing calls by comparing them against a list of approved numbers — is already being used by many) promises to further empower consumers.
If approved by the FCC at its June 18 open meeting, the new rules would take effect immediately.