Robocalls are one of consumers’ biggest complaints, and the outlook for those who don’t want these annoying calls wasn’t looking good.
You see, snuck into the 2015 federal budget was a provision called Section 301. It allowed certain debt collectors — the ones collecting money owed to the federal government — to receive a special exemption from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).
TCPA prohibited debt collectors from making non-emergency robocalls to a wireless phone without a consumer’s consent.
But with the passage of the budget, government debt collectors no longer had to follow that rule. They could now use robocalls “to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.”
This was a big deal for collectors of federal student debt, mortgage debt and tax payments, too.
And it’s a big deal for consumers.
The budget bill tasked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to come up with new rules for the federal debt collectors, and we now have a better idea of what it will look like.
The new rules put limits on the number of robocalls debt collectors can make to cell phones when they are collecting debts for the federal government.
It’s a win for consumers, advocates say.
Federal debt collectors could only use three robocalls per month unless it has a consumer’s permission. That means three calls per month per collector or servicer, so if you have several federal debts, you could get more calls, said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumers Union.
The rules also limit these robocalls to consumers who actually owe the debt or are legally responsible for it, and they require robocallers to inform consumers that they have the right to opt out of these calls. Debt collectors must honor all requests to stop these calls, Mahoney said.
“Congress never should have given the green light to debt collectors to robocall consumers, but the rules adopted by the FCC will help protect consumers from being unfairly harassed,” she said.
But of course, the robocall fight isn’t simple or easy.
The new rules conflict with different ruling by the FCC, called the Broadnet ruling,which was issued earlier this summer.
The ruling declared federal contractors were exempt from the TCPA when acting as agents of the federal government, Mahoney said.
That was a big contradiction with the new FCC rules.
“This ruling could open up a broad exemption for robocalls from federal contractors,” she said.
So Consumers Union joined 50 other consumer groups to sign a petition to the FCC asking it to reconsider the ruling, and the agency has opened the petition up to comments. Those are due Aug. 31, Mahoney said.
“We hope that the FCC will reverse the ruling to help protect consumers from a dramatic increase in unwanted robocalls to their cell phones without their consent,” she said.
Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action, said her group believes the Broadnet ruling must be reversed because it doesn’t allow for people “to stop robocalls to their mobile phones from government agents, which most take to include contractors.”
These FCC rules are so important because, well, legislation on the topic hasn’t advanced.
Sen. Bob Menendez’s bill — the HANGUP (Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone Calls) Act — would roll back Section 301, which allowed government debt collectors to use robocalls.
In the House of Representatives, Reps. Tammy Duckworth (IL-08) and Anna Eshoo (CA-18) introduced their own version of the bill.
In the meantime, consumers will need to take action on their own.
“If consumers receive calls from federal debt collectors that they don’t want, they should specifically articulate back to the debt collector that they want to call the calls to stop and they withdraw any consent that the caller thinks they might have,” said Margot Saunders of the National Consumer Law Center. “And if the calls continue, they should consider hiring an attorney to litigate against the caller.”
Also be sure to check out Consumer Union’s “End Robocalls” campaign.
So far, more than 620,000 people have signed its petition calling for phone companies to offer free call-blocking technology, which is something called for by another piece of legislation called ROBOCOP.
You can learn more about consumer action on the topic, and see what you can do to help.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.