The National Consumer Law Center warned Congress on Wednesday that a change to federal law last year is troublesome because it now allows the government to use robocalls to collect debt.
Margot Saunders, counsel for NCLC, testified at a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing that before the change people were informed that government agencies would not try to collect money with prerecorded messages.
"But now, because the IRS can hire debt collectors and because the IRS debt collectors can robocall without consent," the resulting confusion makes people more susceptible to scams, she said.
The committee’s hearing examined whether recent federal regulation is leaving people vulnerable to harassing automated phone calls. At issue is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which was revised by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 to allow for robocalls to cell phones for government debt collection.
Saunders testified that rising complaints about harassing calls and texts have come after the change to the law. She cited several recent cases illustrating why prerecorded messages remain one of the biggest consumer issues.
Yahoo sent nearly 30,000 texts to one phone, yet maintained that it was not required to stop because a previous subscriber had consented, according to her written testimony. In another case, Chase Auto Finance sent a person who was not a customer more than 80 calls relating to someone else’s debt.
Saunders testified that in many cases, "the caller had decided that it was simply more cost effective to ignore the express wishes of these consumers and continue to make these automated calls."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said companies should be able to use technology to let consumers opt out of messages, so they don't "need to call them 40 times to figure out it was a reassigned number."
Monica Desai, partner at law firm Squire Patton Boggs, said current law is putting added pressure on companies that are struggling to figure out who can be called and who cannot. She recommended creating a single, comprehensive phone number database to make compliance easier.
Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning the use of modern dialing technologies when contacting consumers on cell phones about student loan debts, mortgages, taxes and other debts owed to or guaranteed by the government.
The FCC is seeking comments on the proposal, which is likely to strike a balance between consumer protections and a congressional directive included in the Bipartisan Budget Act.