Guest Columnist

Grassley: A bipartisan effort to end robocalls

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is pictured in Washington, D.C. in October 2017. (photo supplied by Grassley press office)
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is pictured in Washington, D.C. in October 2017. (photo supplied by Grassley press office)

Chances are that within the last 24 hours, you’ve received a robocall. In fact, probably more than one. If it seems like you’re getting more and more robocalls to your home and cellphones, it’s because you are.

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of unwanted calls citizens received exploded, increasing by nearly 57 percent. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that it saw a 2.5 million increase in the number of robocall and phone scam complaints it’s received over the past year from consumers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says that unwanted robocalls are the number-one complaint from American citizens. There have been an estimated 15.3 billion robocalls so far in 2019. That comes out to approximately 46 calls per person since January 1. Remarkably, one forecast predicts half of all calls in the United States could be telemarketing scams by the end of this year.

The escalation of unsolicited calls is largely due to the success that scammers have had over the past several years. The robocall industry continues to develop and is becoming more sophisticated every day. Bad actors can now manipulate phone numbers on caller ID systems to closely match the phone number they are dialing, meaning incoming calls are often from the consumer’s area code. This is known as “spoofing.” It tricks people into believing they’re receiving a call from someone they know, making it more likely they’ll answer.

Years ago, robocalls were merely a nuisance. That’s quickly changing. Now, they can be dangerous. Increasingly, scammers are using robocalls to steal money and personal information. They sometimes pose as utilities, government agencies or foreign consulates in an attempt to scare people out of their money or into giving away personal information. Other times they claim to be relatives who need help or financial professionals offering to assist with investments. There have been reports over the past couple years of scammers cheating Iowans out of their life savings, either through direct theft of account information or by convincing victims to purchase products or services. Sadly, most victims are never able to recover their stolen assets.

The seriousness of the problem has reached a boiling point. I’m hearing regularly from Iowans at my county meetings and through calls and emails that they’re fed up with and worried about the incessant, unsolicited calls. My congressional colleagues from both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and House of Representatives are hearing the same.

Currently, the FTC operates the Do Not Call registry, which Congress created in 2003. The online registry allows consumers to request that their phone numbers be removed from telemarketing call lists. However, as technology has evolved, the need for more protection against robocalls has increased.

The outcry for relief from these calls was the genesis of the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, a bipartisan bill I’ve co-sponsored, which would take aim at telemarketers who prey on consumers. The bill would strengthen penalties by allowing the FTC to impose civil fines up to $10,000 per illegal call. It would also extend the length of time a lawsuit can be brought against scammers from one year to three years and engage telecom providers by requiring them to adopt authentication tools to enable phone carriers to disclose and verify the origin of an incoming call. That would allow consumers to choose whether or not they want to answer a call.

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The TRACED Act would enhance the ability of federal regulators to pursue violators and hold bad actors accountable. It would also help bring some much needed security and relief to victims of robocalls in Iowa and throughout the country. With bipartisan support in the Senate and House of Representatives, I’m hopeful Congress will deliver this significant victory for the American people.

• U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is a Republican from Iowa.

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