The Federal Communications Commission can’t escape robo-calls. Just like the rest of us.
Last summer, the FCC issued broad new rules meant to resolve a host of questions about when banks and other companies are allowed to make auto-dialed calls to U.S. consumers. But the regulations did not put the issue to rest.
The FCC’s rules, which were unpopular with industry groups, are now being challenged in federal court. Banks wanted a release from liability when they inadvertently reach the wrong person, but the FCC granted an exemption only for the first wrong-number call. The rules cover a range of robo-calling activities and the industry also wanted, but failed to get, a break with respect to debt collection.
At the same time, robo-calls are back on the FCC’s agenda after Congress passed a law exempting collectors of government-backed debt from a requirement that callers get consumers’ consent for the calls.
The November 2015 law was designed to make it easier to collect on federally backed student loans. Congress ordered the FCC to write regulations to implement the exemption.
But on Wednesday, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee asked the FCC to include a range of consumer protections in the new rules. Specifically, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wants the FCC to limit the number and duration of calls that can be made under the exemption. He is also asking the agency to give consumers the ability to request that the calls be stopped.
"While it is important to ensure that the federal government can effectively collect on debt it is owed, it is also important to ensure that the federal government is not itself an instrument to harass and mistreat individuals through robo-calls," Brown wrote in a letter to FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler.
The FCC, which is expected to issue a proposed rule in the next several weeks, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But consumer groups, which support Brown’s proposals, are optimistic following their recent conversations with FCC officials. "We’re encouraged by what we’ve heard," said Margot Saunders, a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center.
Meanwhile, the FCC is facing a court challenge from numerous industry groups over its earlier robo-calling rules. The Consumer Bankers Association and the National Association of Federal Credit Unions are among the groups that have signed onto legal briefs challenging the June 2015 rules.
The rules made clear that banks and other businesses are subject to strict liability of $500 to $1,500 for each unsolicited robo-call to a cellphone. While the FCC carved out a small exemption involving calls that inadvertently reach the wrong person, the regulations fell far short of what the banking industry was seeking.
The FCC’s rules are being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Oral arguments have yet to be scheduled.
Banks have paid more than $200 million to settle robo-calling lawsuits in recent years.