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Will A New Law To Curb Robocalls Make A Difference?


If you have a phone, you have probably gotten your share of robocalls. As universal and universally heated as they are, they are very hard to stop. Lawmakers and phone companies have tried. And the latest effort is a bill signed into law just yesterday by President Trump.

For more on what this law would do, I'm joined now by Wall Street Journal reporter Sarah Krouse. Welcome.

SARAH KROUSE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: All right. So I guess the million-dollar question is, will this new law make a real difference?

KROUSE: This new law will not stop your phone from ringing immediately.

CHANG: Great.

KROUSE: This is something that gives the FCC greater power to pursue wrongdoing. It gives them more time to investigate nefarious scamming robocalls. It gives carriers, you know, sort of a nudge forward to continue to do more to block services free of charge to consumers. So on that front, there's a lot of sort of incremental progress in getting at the problem, but there - because there is no one solution, this isn't going to stop them across the board.

CHANG: Can we at least expect robocalls to slow down as a result of this new law? Or you're just pretty much saying, immediately, there will be no visible effect.

KROUSE: So I think what the rate of robocalls will depend on is how aggressive carriers actually are. So they traditionally could have gotten in trouble for blocking calls, and that made them hesitant to really aggressively block robocalls until this year. The FCC gave them more latitude to do so, and this legislation really sort of pushes carriers to offer call-blocking services free of charge, on either an opt-in or an opt-out basis, to all their customers.

CHANG: Right, because the concern for a lot of these phone companies was that they might get sued if they blocked too many calls, and this law would protect them from being sued. But do you think that is actually going to work?

KROUSE: I think it really depends on what type of traffic each carrier decides to label as suspect, and the reason why this gets tricky is there's this broad spectrum of robocalls in the world. There's the sort of benign ones - which is a school blasting out calls to parents to say there's a snow day. There's the prescription notification that you can go to the pharmacy to get it. And then there's this sort of middle ground with businesses - you know, maybe it's a bank, maybe it's a debt collector - you know, that has a right to contact their customer, but the customer may not want to get those calls. And then there's the really shady stuff, which is the scam and the fraudulent activity.

CHANG: Right.

KROUSE: But a lot of those calls rely on the same sort of technology and process to be executed. And so you're looking - you're asking the carriers to look at their call traffic, spot the bad stuff, and block it and make a judgment call on the sort of in-between. So, you know, for example, emergency calls - what constitutes an emergency call? How do you identify that and make sure you don't block it? These are some of the sort of thorny questions.

CHANG: Now, the FCC has said that stopping robocalls would be one of its main priorities. What have been its biggest challenges in fixing this problem?

KROUSE: So one of them is the sort of whack-a-mole problem, let's call it, because it's really cheap and easy to buy a large block of numbers and blast out millions of phone calls. And it's really easy for a bad actor, once they think they're under scrutiny, to sort of close down and pop up under a new name. And so even finding them is difficult. And until recently, the FCC had just a year to bring a robocall-related case. This new legislation expands that to up to four.

Another problem that the FCC has had in the past is the ability to collect the fines that they levy. So they've levied, you know, a couple hundred million dollars in fines against bad actors for robocall-related activity, but they've only been able to collect a small portion of that - less than $7,000, and that's partly because they can only seize the assets that a company or an individual has that they can find. So the net effect of that isn't quite as much of a deterrent as it might look...

CHANG: Right.

KROUSE: ...If you look just at the headline fine.

CHANG: That is Sarah Krouse who covers telecommunications for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you very much.

KROUSE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.