Senate Overwhelmingly Approves Thune, Markey Bill to Crack Down on Illegal and Abusive Robocalls

May 23, 2019

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., a member and former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and current chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, Ed Markey, D-Mass., also a member of the Commerce Committee and author of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., current chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, issued the following statements after the Senate overwhelmingly approved their bipartisan Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act (S. 151) by a vote of 97-1. It now heads to the House for its consideration.

Amidst ever-increasing numbers of robocall scams, the TRACED Act gives regulators more time to find scammers, increases civil forfeiture penalties for those who are caught, promotes call authentication and blocking adoption, and brings relevant federal agencies and state attorneys general together to address impediments to criminal prosecution of robocallers who intentionally flout laws.

“This bipartisan, common-sense bill puts a bullseye on the scam artists and criminals who are making it difficult for many Americans to answer the phone with any bit of confidence about who’s on the other end of the line,” said Thune. “While this bill would make it easier for federal regulators to levy more substantial financial penalties on these bad actors, we take it one step further by working toward creating a credible threat of criminal prosecution – laying the ground work to put these people behind bars. It’s not every day that you see over 80 senators from all corners of the country lend such strong support to a bill like this, but I believe it highlights the urgency of this matter. I want to thank Sen. Markey for all of his work, and we urge the House to take up the TRACED Act without delay.”

“The daily deluge of robocalls that Americans experience is more than a nuisance, it is a consumer protection crisis. Today, the Senate is telling robocallers that their days are numbered,” said Markey. “While our phones were once a secure and vital means of communications, they are now access points for scammers and fraudsters who wish to do us harm. Stopping fraudulent robocalls requires a simple formula: call authentication, call blocking, and enforcement. The bipartisan TRACED Act achieves all three of these objectives. There are no blue robocalls or red robocallers, and I am proud to partner with Senator Thune on this critical consensus legislation. Our colleagues in the House of Representatives must heed the public’s cries, pass this bill, and send it to the President’s desk.”

“Robocalls have plagued Americans for years. People no longer answer their phones if they do not recognize the number and, as a result, are missing important calls. This is all because scammers have hijacked our networks,” said Wicker. “The TRACED Act goes after these abusive and illegal robocallers and gives consumers, regulators, and law enforcement the tools to fight those taking advantage of the system. I am pleased to see so many of my colleagues from all corners of the nation coming together to partner with Senators Thune and Markey to pass this critical legislation. I urge the House to take up and vote for the TRACED Act and then send it to the President’s desk so we can stop the scourge of robocalls.”

Thune and Markey introduced the TRACED Act on January 17, 2019, and its cosponsor list quickly grew to more than three-quarters of the Senate. The bill is supported by attorneys general in all 50 states, by all current commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, and by industry and consumer groupsincluding AARP. It was also the subject of a Thune-led hearing entitled, “Illegal Robocalls: Calling All to Stop the Scourge.” In April of this year the TRACED Act passed out of committee by voice vote. 

Summary of the TRACED Act:

  • Broadens the authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to levy civil penalties of up to $10,000 per call on people who intentionally flout telemarketing restrictions.
  • Extends the window for the FCC to catch and take civil enforcement action against intentional violations to three years after a robocall is placed. Under current law, the FCC has only one year to do so, and the FCC has told the committee that “even a one-year longer statute of limitations for enforcement” would improve enforcement against willful violators.
  • Brings together the Department of Justice, FCC, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Commerce, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and other relevant federal agencies, as well as state attorneys general and other non-federal entities to identify and report to Congress on improving deterrence and criminal prosecution at the federal and state level of robocall scams.
  • Requires voice service providers to adopt call authentication technologies, enabling a telephone carrier to verify that incoming calls are legitimate before they reach consumers’ phones.
  • Directs the FCC to initiate a rulemaking to help protect subscribers from receiving unwanted calls or texts from callers. 

In 2018, when Thune served as chairman of the Commerce Committee, the committee heard testimony under subpoena from Adrian Abramovich, the president of a now defunct company called Marketing Strategy Leaders. Abramovich, who has since been assessed a $120 million fine by the FCC for making nearly 100 million robocalls between 2015 and 2016, described a telemarketing operation as rather easy to put together and nimble, thus making enforcement difficult. His identification by the FCC and assessment of civil penalties raised questions for the committee about the lack of criminal prosecution for offenders caught intentionally and repeatedly violating telemarketing laws.

As one report estimated, the number of spam calls will grow from 30 percent of all phone calls last year to 42 percent of all calls early this year. The TRACED Act would give the FCC more flexibility to enforce rules in the short term, while setting in motion consultations to increase prosecutions of violations, which often require international cooperation. 

The commerce committee has jurisdiction over the FCC, FTC and Department of Commerce.