Every day, millions of Americans receive calls from unknown numbers. Thinking it might be someone they know trying to reach them, they answer but low and behold, it is a robocall. I too receive these countless unwanted calls that are not just annoying but harassment. Many of these calls are made by automated bots that target individuals in our district. In my first term in Congress in 2009, I was proud to support the Truth in Caller ID Act, which made the consequences of initiating spam calls severe and resulted in more than $200 million in fines in 2018. However, robocall spammers have stayed a step ahead of our laws and there is still much more work to be done.
Whether it is through townhalls, letters, phone calls or Facebook, I have heard repeatedly from constituents that these calls are still a serious issue and I am listening. That is why I am proud to join my friend and Tennessee colleague Rep. David Kustoff in cosponsoring his TRACED Act, which will combat robocalls by broadening the authority of the FCC to charge civil penalties of up to $10,000 per call on those who intentionally flout telemarketing restrictions and will extend the timeline of the FCC has to take civil actions against violators from one year to three. Importantly, this legislation will require services providers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint to update their authentication technologies so that carriers can identify false calls.
Despite our past efforts, the number of robocalls are still increasing and more than 48 billion robocalls were made in 2018. In 2017, only 3.7 percent of total calls in the US were scam calls; in 2018 that number increased to 29.2 percent. To make things worse, that percentage is expected to jump to 45 percent in 2019. In East Tennessee, the total number of robocalls placed in 2018 to area code 423 was over 197 million, and to area code 865 was over 126 million. Over the course of five months in 2019, there have been over 115 million calls to 423 and over 79 million to 865 – already over half of what is was last year.
Robocalls affect people everywhere – making many feel vulnerable – with Tennessee seniors being one of the biggest targets. One in five seniors are a victim of fraud, and seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion from financial scams each year. With nearly 27 billion robocalls classified as scams out of 30.5 billion total calls in 2017, it is easy to understand why our seniors and their families are concerned. Mallory Cross, a Senior Programmer of the Slater Center in Bristol, Tennessee, which serves around 2,000 seniors, said: “Working here at the Slater Community Center, I have heard how our seniors feel about these robocalls. Many feel disconcerted and worried because they are being taken advantage of. Some have said they feel angry and targeted. It is unfair that our seniors are victims of these calls, and as a worker here it hurts to see them upset or confused.”
I am also pleased that the Trump administration is making this matter a priority. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) both are taking action to crack down on these abusive callers. The FCC proposed a $120 million fine against an individual who reportedly made almost 100 million spoofed calls in 2017, and recently finalized a proposal to make it easier for voice service providers to aggressively block unwanted robocalls based on reasonable call analytics before they reach the customer. Additionally, on March 26, 2019, the FTC successfully settled charges with four separate organizations that were running illegal robocall operations; all four are banned from making telemarketing calls and will pay significant fines. One charity scam, “Operation Donate with Honor,” saw one individual have the audacity to use fake veterans’ charities and illegal robocalls to get people to donate for his own financial gain. This disturbs me to my core that someone would use our nation’s veterans as a fraudulent tool to harm others.
I am very hopeful that with our continued efforts to combat these calls, we can end robocalls once and for all. I also want to encourage each of you, to register your phone number on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry to help protect yourself from telemarketing calls here. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on this or any other matter in the future.