- - Saturday, June 6, 2020

My smart phone is so smart that on the rare occasions that I do get an actual phone call, it alerts me with the message “scam likely” to keep telemarketers off my back. It’s not perfect in differentiating all telemarketers from legitimate business calls, neither is the federal government.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has productively combatted fraudsters, scammers and others who place illegal automated calls. As examples, the FCC under his leadership fined Adrian Abramovich $120 million and fined telemarketer Philip Roesel $82 million for their illegal caller ID spoofing schemes.

The FCC also has given telephone companies expanded authority to block calls they deem most likely to have been placed illegally and directed telephone companies to enact call-authentication standards. The framework for this is called Secure Telephony Identity Revisited and Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs — or SHAKEN/STIR, which proves that Washington bureaucrats will do anything to manufacture an acronym that’s a James Bond reference.

And the proof is in the digital pudding. The FCC is doing great work to crack down on illegal telemarketing robocalls, with the number of robocalls down 50% in the last eight months.

While media outlets were quick to churn out headline after headline on the topic as robocall volumes soared 2015 onward — entirely disregarding the Obama administration’s misguided campaign to expand the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) — there has been a virtual media blackout on the huge reduction in robocalls under the Trump administration FCC.

Mr. Pai and the FCC deserve a round of applause for reducing the number of illegal calls consumers receive, but they need to be sure to avoid painting with too broad a brush. Now is the time to modernize TCPA to make it easier for consumers to receive calls and texts from the companies they use.

Alas because of the FCC’s interpretations of a 1990s-era law intended to stop abusive telemarketing — the aforementioned TCPA — legitimate businesses are struggling to place important, and often time-sensitive, calls to customers. Notifications about potential fraud, reminders about prescriptions and customer service calls are getting caught in the TCPA trap.

The law is supposed to protect consumers, but many are harmed when they can’t get critical, timely information. Health care providers, utility companies, retailers, banks, credit unions and other businesses must be able to contact their customers with information about the customer’s account. These valuable calls also include updates about electric utility outages, alerts about data breaches or fraud, product safety recall notifications and calls to advise of foreclosure-prevention options.

The FCC needs to reform its interpretations of the TCPA so that companies can contact their customers.

Getting calls from companies that give us convenience and critical information is a good thing. The fact that these calls still get made means they are providing some utility to our economy. Illegal robocalls are a problem, but the current law needs to make a clear distinction between legitimate business communication and actual bad actors. The FCC must modernize the TCPA for the 21st century so the FCC agency can facilitate useful calls without hindering its important work to combat the fraudsters, telemarketers and others where there’s a “scam likely.” 

• Jared Whitley has worked in the White House, the Senate and in the defense industry.

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