Feds could let robocalls run amok while Texans pay the price

Photo by Jacqueline Mermea

Texans received 470 million robocalls in August, surpassing Californians as the most robocalled people in the nation. Across our state, people’s phones are ringing several times per day with numbers they don’t recognize. The calls run the gamut from debt collectors, payment reminders and telemarketing calls to outright scams — faking threats of arrests or falsely posing as government agencies — hoping to catch a desperate or vulnerable person at any moment. If U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee don’t insist the Federal Communications Commission enforce strong rules to limit all types of robocalls, the epidemic could get out of control.  

As the most robocalled state in America, Texas will feel the brunt of rewritten consumer protections that open the floodgates to more unwanted robocalls. If the FCC takes its lead from corporate America over consumers, it could establish an autodialer definition so narrow that it no longer applies to the software and equipment used to make robocalls, dealing a near fatal blow to the most important consumer privacy protections from robocalls. At the same time, Texans could be stripped of their rights to verbally revoke consent or simply text “stop” to end unwanted robocalls. 

In recent months, Houston and Dallas area codes have been ranked among the top recipients of robocalls in the entire country. Austin’s 512 area code received 30.3 million robocalls in August, averaging 23 calls per person. Companies like Capital One, Comcast and Spectrum are helping to push Texas numbers up while their lobbyists are in D.C. pushing for rule changes that would allow well-known businesses to make even more calls without penalty.  

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit directed the FCC to revisit the definition of “autodialer” found within the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which offers the foremost consumer protection from robocalls. An autodialer, or automatic telephone dialing system, is used to make multiple calls or send multiple texts at the same time. In response to the court's ruling, the FCC accepted public comment on the TCPA. 

Among the first to submit comments were Wall Street banks, debt collectors, student lenders, retailers and their lobbyists in Washington, eager to undo some of the most straightforward and effective consumer protections from unwanted and illegal robocalls.

The Student Loan Servicing Alliance and the Consumer Bankers Association, representing a number of Texas-based banks and student loan servicers, urged the FCC to redefine — and effectively undo — a number of vital consumer protections from robocalls. Several national business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Collectors Association, also petitioned the FCC to revise its autodialer definition in favor of weaker protections for consumers.

SiriusXM Radio, student loan servicer Navient and Quicken Loans stand alongside robocallers, as they’ve urged the FCC to strip consumers of the right to revoke consent to receive calls when consent is buried in the fine print of consumer contracts. 

The uncertainty looming while courts await the FCC’s revised definition has already let robocallers off the hook for damages caused to Texans. According to federal court records, Araceli King of Irving sued Time Warner Cable for calling her 153 times after she told it to stop. The calls and messages left were for someone who previously held her cellphone number — not for King — and she made this clear in a seven-minute discussion with a company representative. Still, the calls kept coming, even after she filed a lawsuit. 

In 2015, King was awarded $229,500 ($1,500 per call), the maximum per-call liability, with the judge citing Time Warner Cable’s “particularly egregious” conduct. But in June of this year, King’s case was overturned on appeals, with the court citing the appellate court ruling and a lack of clarity as to whether Time Warner Cable’s technology qualified as an autodialer. 

Lawsuits to hold robocallers accountable for wrongdoing are already few and far between. In 2017, 30.5 billion robocalls were received nationwide, prompting 7 million complaints — but just under 4,400 TCPA lawsuits were filed. As more of these cases are thrown out while consumers await decisive action from the FCC, robocallers, emboldened by such rulings, will continue to make unwanted robocalls with no fear of penalty. 

Without a broad autodialer definition and consistent enforcement of the TCPA to prohibit unwanted robocalls, the FCC will leave ordinary Americans defenseless against the tsunami of robocalls. Sen. Cruz and other members on the Commerce committee should urge the FCC to protect Texans, not robocallers. The FCC must clarify and maintain strong rules against unwanted, harmful and annoying robocalls.

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed and Ann Baddour have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Ann Baddour

Project director, Texas Appleseed