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McCaskill to reintroduce bill penalizing phone scams and robocalls

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has promised to help get a contribution limit measure on next year's ballot. But other Democratic officials have promised such a move and haven't delivered.
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Last year the Consumer Protection Division of the Missouri attorney general’s office received 57,000 complaints about a wide variety of scams and fraud, ranging from illegal debt collecting practices to identity theft, according to Deputy Attorney General Joe Dandurand. 

“However, the No. 1 complaint of Missourians – by a significant margin – is about unwanted and illegal telemarketing calls,” Missouri's Deputy Attorney General Joe Dandurand told the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging today.

In his prepared testimony, Dandurand said, more than 52,000 of the 57,000 complaints were about unwanted telemarketing calls.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the ranking member of the committee, announced plans to reintroduce legislation this week to strengthen the Federal Communication Commission’s enforcement authority over fraudulent robocalls. 

“These calls can be annoying or frustrating to many of us, but they can be much more devastating to those, especially seniors, who fall victim to them,” McCaskill said in her prepared comments. She added that her bill will give the FCC more enforcement authority, allowing it to go after non-licensed robocall violators with more severe penalties. 

Another provision in the bill would allow the FCC to enforce anti-spoofing laws against “spammers who spoof” calls to U.S. consumers from outside of the United States.  Spoofing is a practice where the caller is able to transmit a fake name to a recipient’s caller ID. 

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Joe Dandurand

Seniors' most frequent spoofing complaint, Dandurand said, is about a bogus caller ID that shows up as the letters S-S-I, tricking the recipient into believing the call is from the Social Security Administration.  When seniors answer the call, they’re immediately hit with questions designed to gather personal information. 

Missouri state law prohibits any individual or entity from knowingly blocking or circumventing the caller ID on residential phones. (There are exceptions, though, for nonprofits and government.)

Last year the office won more than $600,000 in judgments against telemarketers for their illegal conduct, said Dandurand. The AG’s office also obtained court orders keeping 28 telemarketers from placing future calls to the state, but enforcement is a never ending battle. 

“We shut them down and they pop up again in other states or with different identities,” said Dandurand.

Call blocking technology and the FCC

McCaskill said she was “dismayed” to learn a few years ago that while call-blocking technologies do exist, phone company representatives testifying at the time before a Senate sub-committee insisted that federal law prohibits its use. 

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I’ve been tough on the phone companies not because they are causing the problem, but because they are perhaps in the best position to do something about it,” McCaskill said.

Last fall, at least 39 attorneys general, including Missouri’s Chris Koster, sent a letter to the FCC asking that the law be clarified and that phone companies be allowed to use call blocking technologies to protect consumers. Dandurand said that next week the FCC is scheduled to vote on a proposal by its chairman, Tom Wheeler, to protect consumers from “unwanted robocalls, spam text messages, and telemarketing calls.”  McCaskill is also urging the FCC to adopt Wheeler’s proposal. 

McCaskill’s bill

Late last session, McCaskill introduced the Robocall Enforcement Improvement Act, which did not have enough time to move out of committee. Another measure with similar provisions did pass the House.  McCaskill is set to reintroduce her bill with language that previously won House approval.

In addition to the FCC making greater use of its existing authority to modernize its rules, McCaskill said, statutory changes are necessary to keep up with rapidly evolving technology.

"We have to stay on top of this issue because spammers, spoofers and robocallers will continue to use whatever tools area available to them to defraud American consumers. We must give law enforcement more tools and more flexibility to fight these fraudsters,"  she said.

Among the provisions in her new bill:

  • Allows the FCC to increase fines and penalties on certain robocall violators and streamlines enforcement. The provision is similar to one proposed by Wheeler soon after he took office.
  • Expands the statute of limitations on robocall violations from one year to three years. This, too, is backed by Wheeler.
  • Increases the maximum penalty that the FCC can impose from $16,000 to $25,000. 
  • Allows the FCC to enforce anti-spoofing provisions against violators outside the U.S. when those calls are directed to consumers within the U.S.