Some robocalls—automated telephone calls that deliver recorded messages—are useful. For example, calls that advise you about a school closing, potential credit card fraud, and medical notifications are to your benefit. But robocalls from telemarketers and scammers are annoying and, in some cases, costly and dangerous. Telemarketers often originate calls using automatic telephone dialing systems to send out thousands of phone calls per minute, sometimes using fake or misleading names or bogus area codes designed to deceive you into answering the call. This practice is called “spoofing.”
In this article, you'll learn about the federal laws, like the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, as well as some state laws, that protect consumers from telemarketer and scammer robocalls. But will these laws really stop annoying robocalls? They help, but only to an extent. It's impossible to stop all scammer calls from getting through.
Federal laws—like the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Federal Communication Commission Rule—restrict unwanted calls.
Congress passed the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) (47 U.S.C. § 227) in response to an increasing number of consumer complaints about telemarketer calls. The primary purpose of the TCPA is to reduce the number of nuisance calls that consumers receive and to protect a consumer's right to privacy. (To learn more, read The TCPA: Protection Against Robocalls and Prerecorded Calls.)
The TCPA explicitly restricts the practices of telemarketers and their use of automated dialing and prerecorded voice messages with regard to cellphones, residential phone lines, text messages, and unsolicited faxes. It also restricts telemarketers from calling consumers who have registered with the federal do not call registry. (Some states, like Florida, have their own do not call registries and laws that restrict telemarketing.)
Under the TCPA, the Federal Communications Commission can assess a penalty for intentional violations of up to $10,000 per call.
Another federal law that governs telemarketing calls is the Federal Trade Commission's Telemarketing Sales Rule. The Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibits telemarketers from calling you if you’ve stated that you don't wish to receive calls from them, or your telephone number is on the national do not call registry. But if the telemarketer can show that it obtained your express written consent to place calls to you or that it has an established business relationship with you (and you haven't said you don't want them to call you), then the telemarketer may call you. (16 C.F.R. § 310.4)
The Federal Communication Commission Rule (47 C.F.R. § 64.1200) prohibits automatic dialers with prerecorded voice messages from calling residential phone lines without the prior express written consent of the called party, unless the call:
Also, telemarketers can't abandon more than three percent of all telemarketing calls that a live person answers. (A call is “abandoned” if it is not connected to a live sales representative within two seconds of the called person's completed greeting.) (47 C.F.R. § 64.1200).
On December 30, 2019, President Trump signed the TRACED Act into law. This law makes it easier for consumers to identify robocalls so that they can avoid answering them. The law pushes telephone companies to implement the SHAKEN/STIR system, which is an industry-developed standard designed to prevent scammers from making calls that have inaccurate caller-ID information. Under the SHAKEN/STIR framework, calls from numbers that seem suspicious show up on phones with labels like “scam likely” or “spam likely.”
The legislation also expands the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to impose civil penalties of up to $10,000 per call for each intentional violation, and increases the time period that the Commission can take action to against those who intentionally violate the law to four years.
As of early 2019, some states, including Illinois and Massachusetts, among others, are debating bills that prohibit certain robocalling practices. In Arkansas, the legislature passed a law that protects consumers in that state from spoofed robocalls.
An Arkansas law (SB 514) imposes strict criminal penalties for illegal call spoofing and creates an oversight process for telecommunications providers. The legislature passed the law on April 1, 2019 and delivered the bill, now Act 677, to the governor the next day.
Specifically, the law prohibits the use of a third party to display or cause to be displayed spoofed caller ID information for any purpose. (A few exceptions exist, like in matters pertaining to law enforcement and public safety.) The law also forbids a person from causing “a caller identification service to transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information if the purpose is to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” Moreover, telecommunication providers must report yearly to state regulators about how they’re implementing current technologies to block illegal robocalls.
Under the law, spoofing (previously a misdemeanor offense) is now a Class D felony, which means it’s punishable by up to six years in prison.
If you want to learn more about the federal laws—as well as state laws (if any) where you live—that apply to robocalls, talk to a local consumer protection attorney.