Billions of robocalls already are working on the last nerve of consumers each and every month.
So, no one wants to hear a warning from consumer watchdogs that yet another "tsunami of unwanted and unstoppable" robocalls and texts to cell phones could be on the horizon.
But complex debates involving the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 are ongoing and robocalls are a hot-button issue.
Consumer groups argue that a change in the rules could make it too easy for banks, student loan servicers and others to send even more unwanted texts and robocalls to our cell phones. Right now, businesses face tougher limits for calling our cell phones than our landlines and many limits could go away if the Federal Communications Commission issues new rules.
Consumer watchdogs favor maintaining strong consumer protection laws that discourage robocalling and allow consumers to easily withdraw their consent for being called.
Industry groups have a financial incentive to see change. After all, they say the rules reflect a time when everyone was tied to their landlines, not their cell phones. Many student loan borrowers and millennials taking out a mortgage only have a cell phone, not a landline.
Business leaders want crystal clear regulations for what's allowed to reduce all the confusion with the existing rules. Class-action lawsuits, as a result, might be harder to win if the rules are changed. Quicken Loans, for example, maintains the current rules leave businesses in the precarious position of having some clients who would like to receive a call but the companies cannot call without violating the law.
"We have encouraged the commission to pursue smart, modern policies that aggressively target scammers and illegal telemarketers, while allowing banks and other businesses to protect their customers through timely communications that alert them to suspicious activity or provide account updates that may help them avoid fees,” Virginia O’Neill, senior vice president of American Bankers Association's Center for Regulatory Compliance.
More than 50 percent of U.S. households are now "wireless-only" — and that percentage rises to more than 70 percent for adults who are between 25 and 34 years old, bankers say.
But unless the caller has given prior consent, telephone calls and text messages to cell phones using an automatic dialing system, commonly known as an "autodialer," aren't allowed now in most cases.
The Credit Union National Association wants the act updated to treat informational calls to wireless phones the same as calls to landlines.
"The rules and regulations don't match current technology or consumer preferences," said Monique Michel, senior director of advocacy and counsel for the Credit Union National Association, based in Madison, Wis.
Plenty of consumers, of course, can sign up for alerts to their cell phones already to avoid overdraft fees or be contacted about suspicious activity. But, again, they must agree upfront to such calls or texts.
Bankers maintain that they want to be able to send critical notices to cell phones for large groups of customers, including delinquent borrowers.
"It is well-established that the earlier the creditor is able to communicate with a financially distressed borrower, the more likely the creditor will be able to offer the borrower a loan modification, interest-rate reduction, forbearance on interest and fees during a temporary hardship or disaster, or other alternative that will help limit avoidable late fees, interest charges, negative credit reports, and, where appropriate, repossession of the collateral or foreclosure," according to the comment letter submitted June 28 by the American Bankers Association to the FCC.
Take an emergency situation, such as the hurricanes last year in Texas. One credit union wanted to offer low-cost, short-term loans to members but people who had landlines weren't in their homes. And the credit union couldn't call those with cell phones, if the customer had not agreed to be contacted by cell phone, Michel said.
Yet, most days, who really wants more calls to their cell phones?
"The industry smells blood. They really believe, and they may be right, that they can convince this FCC to define autodialer in such a way that it will not cover any systems out there, which would make tens of millions of robocalls ungoverned and unstoppable," said Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center.
The act exists, she said, to protect privacy rights by limiting unwanted and invasive robocalls. But she's concerned that the FCC's move last December to repeal federal net neutrality regulations shows an anticonsumer bent, as many anticipate that consumers will end up paying more for Internet services.
Yet Saunders said she remains hopeful that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will do as he has promised and actually provide a means for consumers to control unwanted automated calls. Part of the debate involves three issues:
What's allowed when it comes to cell phones?
Businesses say there is a lack of clarity on what is an "autodialer" — or an automatic telephone dialing system.
The American Bankers Association has urged the Federal Communications Commission to provide a new interpretation of an "automatic telephone dialing system." The banking trade group wants to use automatic equipment that dials cell phones from a stored list of customer numbers to send timely alerts when necessary. It favors, as does Quicken, limiting restrictions to the act of randomly generating phone numbers to call and then calling the number generated.
But consumer groups warn that if the FCC calls for a more limited definition in the future, it would free up lenders and others to make more calls and texts to cell phones without worries of being threatened by litigation. Consumer groups want all equipment being used to send autodialed calls be classified as an “autodialer."
What can consumers do to regain control?
Business groups maintain that the definition for opting out now is way too broad — where it could mean almost anything from phoning the company to revoke consent to going into a branch to sending something in the mail. Quicken said it is suggesting that the FCC define "any reasonable means" for opting out of calls to center on a company establishing and following procedures for revoking consent or not using intentionally deceptive options.
Consumer watchdogs are fearful that the FCC could decide that if consent to receive robocalls is part of the fine print of a contract, the consumer would never be able to revoke such consent.
What happens when the business has the wrong number?
Both sides agree that problems crop up when phone numbers change and one consumer starts receiving calls meant for someone else. It can be hard to stop those unwanted calls now and watchdogs fear it could get even tougher if the rules change.
Businesses maintain they don't know if they're actually calling the person they intend to call until the person picks up the phone. Many times, individuals do not give a greeting on their cell phones.
Quicken said the definition should include the "intended recipient of a call" so that a business "reaching out to provide consumer-wanted services are inside the law."
Consumer groups note that if the rules change, robocallers could call wrong numbers with impunity, as long as someone who once had that phone number consented to receive robocalls.
While some of the arguments being made by business leaders seem reasonable, consumers, of course, are already sick of all the robocalls being sent to their cell phones today. So it's hard to imagine consumers wanting to receive any more calls as it is.
Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumers Union, said consumers need the strongest protections possible to avoid unwanted calls and texts.
"Scam robocalls are a significant problem, but they're not the only problem relating to unwanted robocalls," Mahoney said.
To be sure, consumers are making some, limited headway against unwanted robocalls.
The Federal Communications Commission voted last year to allow telephone carriers to block robocalls that appear to be scams. Calls that phone carriers can block include numbers that are not in use, or are clearly invalid, such as a call from a nonexistent area code.
While such a change is welcome, it might only block 10 percent or less of robocalls, experts say.
If consumers want, they can explore other available tools to stop unwanted calls, too. AT&T has a "Call Protect" service for smartphones that offers automatic blocking of fraudulent calls and suspected spam warnings. T-Mobile has free services called ScamID and ScamBlock.
The call blocking app called Nomorobo charges $1.99 a month per device to block some calls. It allows calls you'd want like those about prescriptions or a school closing to come through. Nomorobo also offers a free service for VoIP landlines.
But watch out for scammers there, too. The Federal Trade Commission is warning that fake e-mails are being sent by scammers impersonating the FTC and telling people that their Do Not Call registration is expiring.
"Registrations never expire. Once you add a number to the Do Not Call Registry, you do not need to register it again," the FTC warns.
Contact Susan Tompor: email@example.com or 313-222-8876. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor.