On New Year's Eve, President Donald Trump signed the TRACED Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at reducing the barrage of robocalls Americans receive every day.

If you think you're getting more robocalls than you used to, it's not your imagination. Americans received 54 million robocalls -- automated calls that deliver pre-recorded messages -- between January and November in 2019. That's more calls than they got in all of 2018. No wonder 70 percent of consumers say they won't answer the phone if they don't recognize the number that's calling. The new TRACED Act, which goes into effect in 2020 aims to do something about all this. (TRACED stands for Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence.)

The law requires carriers to deploy the STIR/SHAKEN protocol authentication system designed to identify spoofed numbers, which robocallers often use to deceive people into answering their phones. For example a spoofed number can make it appear that the call is coming from within the same area code. Spoofing also makes it tougher for consumers to reduce the number of robocalls they get by blocking those numbers, because robocalls rarely come in from the same number twice. Large carriers have already begun rolling out STIR/SHAKEN, and if you've already gotten calls that your phone warned you were "suspected spam" chances are that new technology is why.

The new law increases fines for robocalls to up to $10,000 per call, which can add up to a lot since robocalling companies typically make millions of calls. It also requires carriers to give customers access to authentication and blocking at no extra charge. It also encourages prosecutors to send those who've made illegal robocalls to prison. 

One provision is more important than it may appear: The statute of limitations for prosecution is now four years instead of just one year. Investigators would sometimes need more than a year to track down a purveyor of robocalls, which would give him or her automatic immunity from prosecution. The new longer statute should alleviate that problem.

Some robots can still call you.

The law does not make all robocalling illegal. Calls that are purely informational, healthcare related calls, such as calls from pharmacies telling you a prescription is ready, or doctor's appointment reminders are still allowed. So are political calls and debt collection calls. So are calls for which you've given consent, but the law doesn't specify what it take to give consent or to withdraw it. Consumer Reports warns that robocallers may choose to define consent in ways that consumers don't agree with. 

And, of course, this is U.S. law, which means it won't be effective against the many robocallers calling from outside this country. International coordination among governments and phone companies will be needed to reduce the quantity of robocalls coming in from abroad.

Experts say that as the law is enforced and STIR/SHAKEN is rolled out to more customers, the flood of robocalls should start abating over time, although it will take years to reduce robocalls to non-annoyance levels. And the new law also asks the Federal Communications Commission to begin addressing  robotexts, a new source of growing frustration. 

So, things may get better, although slowly. In the meantime, Consumer Reports says you should make sure to list both home and mobile numbers with the Do Not Call registry. This won't stop robocalls in itself since many of these companies ignore the list, but it's a start. Then when you do get robocalls, report them to the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission. It may feel to you like this has no effect, but the offending numbers will go into a database that carriers and security companies use with their call-blocking software. So it might just prevent you -- or someone else -- from getting a call from that number in the future.

Published on: Dec 31, 2019
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