United States: FCC Chairman Proposes New TCPA Rules

The FCC is ready to rule on long-standing petitions seeking clarifications of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and related FCC regulations. On May 27, 2015, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated a proposed regulatory ruling to fellow commissioners, which would address issues raised in more than 20 pending petitions. The fact sheet summarizing the chairman's proposal foreshadows bad news for legitimate businesses using automatic telephone dialing technology.

The fact sheet lumps scammer calls like those from perky "Rachel" of the mysterious and ambiguous "Cardholder Services" with those from legitimate businesses. The fact sheet cites the 214,000 consumer complaints about robocalls. No breakdown is given as to how many of these complaints involved con artists and how many related to businesses calling, for example, to collect debt. The tone of the fact sheet provides no comfort. Its preamble states the plan is to "close loopholes and strengthen consumer protections."

The FCC will vote on the new proposal during its Open Commission Meeting scheduled for June 18, 2015. In the meantime, companies using automatic telephone dialing technology should plan to take action to comply with whatever comes from the FCC. There will be no notice and comment period and whatever passes at the Open Commission Meeting will become effective immediately upon release.

New Provisions

If Chairman Wheeler's proposals are adopted without changes, the new rules will provide:

  • Wireless and wired telephone consumers will have the right to revoke their consent to receive calls and text messages sent from autodialers in any reasonable way at any time. Many courts have concluded that consumers have a right to revoke consent. Some have said that revocation must be in writing. Some have said consent, once given, cannot be taken back. If this proposal passes, all courts likely will hold that consent may be revoked in any reasonable way at any time. This rule will have consequences beyond TCPA exposure. For example, it is likely to increase the cost of credit because creditors and debt collectors will have to employ more people to manually dial debtors who have failed to meet their obligations and utter the words, "Stop calling me!"
  • To prevent "inheriting" consent for unwanted calls from a previous subscriber, callers will be required to stop calling reassigned wireless and wired telephone numbers after a single request. It is not clear from the fact sheet what the individual on the other end of the line must say to notify the caller that they are not the person they seek to reach.
  • The TCPA currently prohibits the use of automatic telephone dialing systems to call wireless phones and to leave prerecorded telemarketing messages on landlines without consent. The current definition of an "automatic telephone dialing system" under the TCPA is "equipment which has the capacity to (A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers." A 2003 FCC ruling focused on the use of the word "capacity" in the definition and broadly extended the definition to cover autodialers used to dial specific numbers. This ruling has resulted in inconsistent court decisions over whether a dialer must have a present capacity to so dial or whether a future capacity is sufficient for to trigger TCPA coverage. The new proposal appears to attempt to resolve the ambiguity by amending the definition of an "automatic telephone dialing system" to mean "any technology with the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers." That is not much help. The industry needs an answer on the present versus future capacity issue. As it stands now, a court could conclude that a smartphone is an automatic telephone dialing system. The tone of the fact sheet suggests that this problem is not going to be solved in a way that is favorable to industry.

Existing Provisions Under TCPA

Chairman Wheeler's proposal also provides for some very limited and specific exceptions for "urgent circumstances," which may include free calls or text messages to wireless devices that alert consumers of potential fraud or that remind them of urgent medication refills. Consumers will still have an opportunity to opt-out of these types of calls and texts.

  • The new proposal will also leave many of the existing provisions of the TCPA intact:
  • The FTC will continue to administer the National Do-Not-Call Registry to prevent unwanted telemarketing calls
  • Wireless and home phone subscribers can continue to prevent telemarketing robocalls made without prior written consent
  • Autodialed and prerecorded telemarketing and information calls and text messages to mobile phones will still require prior consent
  • Political calls will still be subject to restrictions on prerecorded, artificial voice, and autodialed calls to wireless phones, but will continue to not be subject to the National Do-Not-Call Registry because they do not contain telephone solicitations as defined by FCC regulations
  • Consumers will still have a private right of action for violations of the TCPA along with statutory penalties

Implications

If adopted, the new regulations may significantly restrict the use of autodialing technologies by business. However, the devil will be in the details. Organizations should review the owners' manual that came with their dialer. What can it actually do? In other words, what is its present and future capacity? Have those answers ready so you can act when the FCC rules. Companies should also have proper processes and systems in place to meet the consumer opt-out requirements of any new regulations. Policies should address steps to take when a called party claims that the number called no longer belongs to your intended recipient.

One thing is certain about these new rules, they will not stop scammers who use spoofed caller IDs and originate calls from outside of the United States and, therefore, outside of the jurisdiction of the FCC and/or FTC. They will just make to harder and more expensive for legitimate businesses to reach their customers.

Additional information on the TCPA may be found on Foley's Consumer Financial Services Bulletin blog.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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