Letter from DC: Wireless Robo-calling Coming?

Industry-led legislation could destroy sanctity of cell phones.

By , Columnist

The masses apparently are descending upon the Rayburn House Office Building pleading for legislators to approve robo-calls, “informational” contact by businesses, “surveys,” and enhanced access by bill collectors to the nation’s 322 million mobile phones.

Why else would the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology consider the “Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011 (H.R. 3035),” legislation that would expose cell phone customers to a litany of unsolicited commercial messages and harassment from bill collectors? Certainly the people must be demanding action, its “bi-partisan” sponsors, Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) and Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY) must think.

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The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 offered telephone customers protections from annoying unsolicited calls. Its signature hallmark was the creation of the national “Do Not Call” registry. But it also included specific protections for cell phones customers, predicated on the situation then that minutes were expensive and mobile users should not subsidize marketing efforts aimed at them.

Now a coalition of banking, debt collection, and higher education loan lobbyists, consolidated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are seeking to gut those protections by “enacting limited, common sense revisions to facilitate the delivery of time-sensitive consumer information to mobile devices,” read a September 23 coalition letter.

The legislation would exempt “informational calls from the restriction on auto-dialer and artificial/pre-recorded voice calls to wireless numbers,” according to letter. Perhaps just as troubling are their efforts to “clarify” the “prior express consent” requirement that “facilitates communications between consumers and the businesses in which they choose to interact.”

Essentially, a simple Caller ID’ed call to a “business” would imply consent for the wireless caller to receive unsolicited messages from that business thereafter, not to mention the potential for the warehousing of the number and likely distribution and sale to other businesses. Currently, wireless users must provide their number and explicitly approve its use as a means of any contact.

“You got to be kidding me,” reacted Capitol Hill resident and U-10 Blue Jays Girls Soccer coach Theresa Owens, who uses her wireless phone to organize her team and family communication. “That’s why I kept my landline; to funnel all that crap to my answering machine! I’m still getting ten calls a day. Now they want my cell too?”

Sound ludicrous? The legislation made it all the way to the hearing stage last week. Republicans are leading the charge, carrying the water for their big business sponsors. “Supporters argue that current restrictions prevent schools from using an automatic dialing system to deliver snow-day alerts to parents that have wireless phones and banks from sending out fraud alerts or low-balance alerts to customers with wireless phones,” the majority staff memorandum explained.

Problem, though, it ain’t true. Staffers need only to go five blocks from their offices to the Capitol Hill Cluster School to find the solution: a one-page consent form allowing the school and DCPS to call and/or text your wireless phone with a promise not to distribute the number. Or they can visit the National Capital Bank three blocks from Rayburn, where they offer their clients the option of wireless contact to their customers.

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The justification for turning your cell phone into a roaming and constant receptacle of thinly-veiled marketing entreaties has gotten so outlandish, one testifier argued that it could be a valuable tool in resolving the foreclosure crisis. “The equation is rather simple: if you increase the number of borrowers we can reach, you increase the number of workouts, and decrease the number of foreclosures,” offered Faith Schwartz, executive director of Hope Now, a government-initiated alliance of banks and mortgage brokers that serve 60% of the nation’s housing market, created to ease the foreclosure crisis.

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See, folks in foreclosure that get all the mailings from the mortgage provider are more likely to answer unfamiliar phone numbers, especially when that number becomes flooded with calls from other debt collectors. If only the foreclosers could get them on the line and modify their balloon and underwater loans. Oh yeah, they’re not modifying the toxic loans; only restructuring them by adding payments to the back end.

What’s pretty incredible about this latest Washington under-the-radar exercise in industry-driven legislation is that it is on behalf of two of your more abusive and maligned industries. Bankers are hardly in the position to demand intrusive tools to market further the bad loans they already made. And debt collectors? They’re the number one industry on the FTC’s complaint list with 144,159 of them, according to the Commission; complaints from folks already shamed by debt and those erroneously hunted for debts they do not owe. (Try living a year as a “Smith.”)

Just the week before the hearing on allowing debt collectors to invade cell phones, the FTC filed suit in a district court against seven debt collection agencies for making false threats against consumers. One company was accused of harassing a consumer with threats to “dig her daughter up” unless she immediately settled a funeral bill.

The House Commerce Committee may be getting the message now that its stealth effort is seeing a bit of sunlight. According to PopVox, a non-partisan online constituency service, 99% (8,623) people oppose H.R. 3035. The Committee even went so far as to voluntarily remove the archived footage of the hearing.

So, passage as a stand-alone bill before the end of the current Congressional session is highly unlikely, but that may not be the strategy. The table is set and a record has been established, making the legislation ripe for a quick fold into another piece of legislation.

The people, by an unprecedented margin, want no part of having their wireless phones inundated by robo-calls and veiled sales pitches. The “People’s House” on the other hand, seek to rationalize a blatant industry grab. Be vigilant with that iPhone...

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