6/5/17

AGs: Ringless Robocalls Are Still Robocalls, Shouldn’t Be Allowed

The Republican National Committee and the lobbyists at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce might think that “ringless” robocalls — automated, prerecorded phone calls that go straight to voicemail — are just fine, but the top legal advisors in several states believe the opposite. Now they’re urging the Federal Communications Commission to oppose a petition that would allow telemarketers to use them. 

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear filed comments [PDF] with the FCC asking the agency to resist a potential change to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) that could open the floodgates for another type of annoying robocall.

The TCPA places restrictions on the use of prerecorded and autodialed calls to wireless phones, limiting their use to emergencies and cases where the recipient has given prior consent to receiving the robocall.

Despite this, a company called All About The Message (AATM) filed a petition [PDF] last week seeking an exemption for ringless robocalls that deliver voicemails to a phone without causing it to ring.

The petition to the FCC asks it to declare that such direct-to-voicemail messages fall outside the umbrella of the TCPA, or to grant the company a waiver to deliver these messages without fear of the penalties that could result from violating the TCPA.

The AGs tell the FCC that allowing this kind of call is a direct contradiction to the purpose of the TCPA and the agency’s Robocall Strike Force, which found robocalls to be the number one source of complaints in 2016.

“The purpose of the TCPA is to protect consumers from unwanted and intrusive calls,” the letter states. “The Commission should exercise its authority to protect consumers from these unwanted ringless robocalls and deny the Petition.”

While AATM claims in its petition that its technology does not constitute an actual phone call and therefore can’t be restricted by the TCPA, the AGs disagree, arguing that the ringless robocalls fall within the meaning of the TCPA and will undoubtedly harass, abuse, and harm consumers further still.

The AGs also take issue with AATM’s claim that consumers are responsible for receiving the messages.

“Shifting the blame for the final delivery of the robocall message onto the consumer because the consumer actually checks their voicemail messages does not make the call permissible under the TCPA,” the AGs write in comments. “Consumers receiving ringless voicemail messages should understand that they have received a robocall—and the Commission should too.”

Additionally, the so-called ringless robocalls, the AGs claim, prevent consumers from blocking unwanted messages with many of the latest call blocking apps and can result in significant costs for those who use prepaid cell phones or limited minutes.

“New Yorkers are already the victims of countless unwanted phone solicitations,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. “The federal government has a basic responsibility to protect American consumers. That certainly doesn’t mean making it even easier for companies to spam them with costly, unsolicited, ringless robocalls.”

The AGs join other organizations in opposing AATM’s petition. Last week, our colleagues at Consumers Union filed comments [PDF] with the FCC, noting that direct-to-voicemail messages are “just as invasive, expensive, and annoying as calls and texts to cell phones.”

Consumers Union argues that granting the petition would allow “telemarketing and debt collection messages to overwhelm the voicemail boxes of consumers. Unlike their ability to limit calls and texts, consumers have no way to limit, restrict or block unwanted voicemail messages from particular callers.”

Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumers Union, tells Consumerist that allowing ringless robocalls could empower fraudsters to harass individuals.
“The FCC should side with consumers and reject this scheme instead of giving the green light for even more annoying robocalls,” Mahoney, who serves as a policy analyst for Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign, said.

The groups’ opposition to the petition comes after several organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and RNC, provided comment to the FCC supporting AATM’s push for the ringless robocalls.

According to the Chamber’s comments [PDF], the new ringless robocall technology is not like the random number or sequential number dialers that Congress first sought to restrict when it enacted the TCPA back in 1991. The group argues that the FCC “cannot continue to sweep new technologies into this technologically-archaic statute.” If Congress wants to bar this technology, it should put it in law, claims the Chamber.

As for the RNC, the group tried [PDF] to make a First Amendment case for ringless robocalls, warning the CC to “tread carefully so as not to burden constitutionally protected political speech without a compelling interest.”

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