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You Can’t Inherit Robocalls When You Get a New Phone Number, FCC Rules

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Among all the things that Washington D.C. has done in the past few decades, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more popular than the Do Not Call List. It had a rocky beginning —  birthing took about a decade — but it worked remarkably well, as federal programs go, and consumers lined up by the millions to join.

You’ve probably noticed that unwanted phone calls are making a bit of a comeback lately, which is partly why the Federal Communications Commission acted Thursday to clarify some provisions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Technological advances like robotexting, along with creative legal interpretations, had begun to chip away at America’s popular right-to-be-left-alone law.

For example, believe it or not, telemarketers had claimed that they could call reassigned phone numbers if they had received permission from the previous owner of the number. True story.

“We close a number of potential loopholes,” wrote FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler last month in a blog post explaining his proposals, which were approved Thursday. “For example, we clarify the definition of ‘autodialers’ to include any technology with the potential to dial random or sequential numbers. This ruling is true to Congress’s intent when passing the law, and would ensure that robocallers cannot skirt consent requirements through changes in technology design. We also close the ‘reassigned number’ loophole, making clear that consumers who inherit a phone number will not be subject to a barrage of unwanted robocalls OK’d by the previous owner of the number.”

So a bunch of things are newly, clearly illegal. Naturally, there are those who oppose the new telemarketing limitations (well, the re-iteration of what’s considered the original intent of the law, and the will of the people.) Banks, for example.

“(Consumer Banking Association) member banks are committed to the spirit of the TCPA and go to great lengths to comply, but they are still facing stifling lawsuits,” said Richard Hunt, CBA president. “We are disappointed with today’s FCC vote and are concerned about the inevitable chilling of beneficial consumer communications. Class-action attorneys appear to be today’s winners at the expense of consumers and well-meaning American businesses.”

While TCPA lawsuits may be considered to be a pain, they are the reason this law works. Unlike so many other consumer protections, the TCPA includes a private right of action, which creates real financial incentive to obey the law.

The FCC also cleared the way for telephone companies to create products that help consumers avoid unwanted calls and texts, so look for them soon.

“We applaud the FCC for holding the line to keep the plague of unwanted robocalls from becoming even worse,” added Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America. “Since the FCC has now clarified that telephone companies can block these types of calls, we expect the companies to act quickly to implement blocking options for their customers.”

Thursday’s vote is tangentially related to the PayPal / eBay robocalling controversy that began a few weeks ago with a story I wrote. Because the issue was already at the forefront for consumer groups and the FCC, it was a little easier to get their attention, which had something to do with the quick action by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau.

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