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Robocall bill shows Congress can still act

Democrats and Republicans may not agree on much these days, but on Thursday they managed to come together in the Senate long enough to summon their mutual hatred of robocalls and unanimously approve a bill to start cracking down on the annoying tactic.

The vote sends the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it. The bill is named for its House and Senate sponsors, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

It’s little wonder senators were able to unite behind this legislation, because the American public has had it with the annoying and potentially dangerous calls.

A study by a caller identity firm found 54.6 billion — that’s billion with a B — robocalls were placed just from January through November this year. That’s an increase of 108% over the same period in 2018.

The TRACED Act will require telephone service providers — wireless and landline — to implement technology to help consumers identify spam calls, and to provide the service for free. The measure also is designed to make it easier for law enforcement to find and prosecute those who use fake numbers to place calls without obtaining permission first as required by law.

As is typical with legislation affecting businesses, the measure is less stringent than it might be thanks to the opposition of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and lobbying by the banking, insurance and student-loan industries. The original House bill sought to restrict automated calls of all kinds. But changes by Senate Republicans mean the bill does not affect legitimate companies that use robocall technology to hound consumers.

The issue is more than just the annoyance of unwanted calls. Scammers are using “spoofing” technology that makes it appear a call is coming from a hospital or medical provider, prompting the receiving party to pick up the call. And in one extreme case, fake calls in Mandarin placed to a hospital situated in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood tied up emergency phone lines for hours, placing patients at risk.

Supporters of the bill acknowledge that it could be 12 to 18 months before the new law has a measurable effect on the scourge of robocalls. But delayed action is better than no action at all.

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