Senate panel advances bill penalizing illegal robocalls

A Senate panel on Wednesday advanced legislation that would levy a hefty fine on illegal robocalls, the latest congressional effort to crack down on the billions of unwanted calls that irritate U.S. consumers every year.

Lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill in 26-0 vote. The measure’s co-sponsors include Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is running for president, and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee.

The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, introduced by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), would give the federal government the authority to slap offenders with fines of up to $10,000 per call.

It also would give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) more time to bring charges against companies behind illegal robocalls, lengthening the statute of limitations from one to three years. The telecom industry would be required under the legislation to take stronger action against “spoofing,” a practice where robocallers make it look like they are calling from a number in the recipient’s area code.

“As nearly half of all calls to mobile phones this year will be robocalls, this legislation can’t get signed into law soon enough,” Thune said during the hearing. “The TRACED Act is a bipartisan act that targets the worst of the worst.”

Markey called the vote “historic.”

“Today, the committee did just take a historic step towards finally ending the deluge of unwanted and intrusive robocalls bombarding millions of consumers across our country on a daily basis,” Markey said.

Lawmakers during the previous Congress held three hearings and passed 13 bills aimed at curtailing robocalls, but the measure advanced by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday is the most significant piece of legislation to address the issue.

U.S. residents received an estimated 26 billion robocalls last year, with a quarter of those from illegal robocallers, according to an industry estimate cited by The Washington Post on Tuesday.

The Federal Trade Commission and FCC have said the most complaints they receive pertain to “unwanted and illegal robocalls.”

But critics say the two agencies have not done enough to address the issue, as the number of unwanted calls has climbed significantly in recent years.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last month warned phone service providers that if they don’t crack down on “spoofed” caller IDs from robocallers, the agency will “consider regulatory intervention.”