Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Bill would permit robo-calls to your cell phoneIf you like getting those automated messages on your home phone, then you’re just going to love a proposal in Congress. The bill (H.R. 3035) would allow these “robo-calls” to your cell phone — even if you didn’t give a company permission to contact you at that number.
Supporters of the “Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011” include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Air Transport Association, as well as groups that represent bankers, mortgage lenders, college loan programs and debt collectors.
In a letter to Congress, they claim H.R. 3035 is needed to “modernize” existing law by enacting “limited common-sense revisions to facilitate the delivery of time-sensitive consumer information to mobile devices, while continuing to protect wireless consumers from unwanted telemarketing calls.”
They say robo-calls to cell phones would be used to alert you to food and drug recalls, data breaches, flight delays and appointment cancellations.
Howard Waltzman, an attorney representing the business groups supporting H.R. 3035, says this “non-marketing commercial information” is important to people. He tells me the ability to make contact via a mobile phone is “critical” because so many people now use a wireless device as their primary or only means of phone communication.
“We have no interest in seeing this bill permit telemarketing calls,” Waltzman tells me. “We would be perfectly fine with any clarification necessary to ensure that it doesn’t.”
(Read: Letter to Congress supporting H.R. 3035)
Consumer groups want Congress to kill the bill. They call it a dangerous proposal that could lead to more nuisance calls.
Delicia Reynolds, legislative director at the National Association of Consumer Advocates, tells me H.R. 3035 would “create potential chaos” because it would “open up everyone’s cell phone number without their consent.”
(Read: NACA letter opposing H.R. 3035)
The Attorneys General in every state also oppose the “Mobile Informational Call Act.” They believe it would erode your right to cell phone privacy. In a letter sent to Congress last week, they say H.R. 3035 would “undermine federal and state efforts to shield consumers from a flood of solicitation, marketing, debt collection and other unwanted calls and texts to their cell phones.”
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madgian, who is leading the charge against this bill, says these “informational” calls to cell phones could cost people who have a limited number of minutes to use each month.
This legislation would open the floodgates for telemarketers to annoy us with robo-calls to our cell phones at all hours of the day while forcing us to foot the bill,” Madigan said in news release. “It’s essentially a way for businesses to shift their advertising and marketing costs on to consumers.”
Critics are especially concerned that H.R. 3035 would let debt collectors (who are pushing this bill) contact people on their cell phones.
It’s estimated that by the end of this year about 25 percent of U.S. cell phone customers will use pre-paid wireless plans, where there’s a charge for every call received. Most prepaid users are in lower income households.
In their letter to Congress, the state attorneys general warn that if debt collectors are able to make robo-calls to cell phones it would “shift the cost of debt collection to the consumers and in particular, to those who can least afford it.”
Delicia Reynolds with the National Association of Consumer Advocates says debt collectors would be able to use your cell phone number even though you didn’t give it to them. They might be able to Google the number or get it from a data broker. They could also call your cell number even if they already have your land line number. It would be their choice, not yours!
“We’re very concerned that the bill would lower privacy rights for the consumer,” she says. “It will open up cell phones to unwanted and nuisance calls.”
Critics say one of the most troubling part of this bill is that it would allow businesses to make robo-calls to anyone’s personal or business cell phone for any commercial purpose — as long as it’s not a solicitation — even if that number is on the “Do Not Call Registry.”
Is a change in the law really needed?Under current law, a company can make contact you via a robo-call if you’ve given them explicit permission to do that or in the case of an emergency. H.R. 3035 would let them robo-call you on your cell phone if you gave them your number in any situation for any reason.
Visit a store or website and give them your cell phone number and you could get robotic follow-up calls of an “informational” nature. The proposed legislation does not provide a way to opt-out of this system. Business groups say they have no problem with adding an opt-out provision to the bill.
My two centsI realize that we are switching to a wireless society. But people think of cell phones — where the meter is running every time you make or receive a call — differently than landlines.
If I want to give an airline my cell phone number to contact me if there’s a flight delay, there’s already a way to do that when I buy my ticket. And I can tell my bank to contact me on my cell phone when I’m about to overdraw my account. But this way I control access to my number.
This bill has many flaws. I don’t think Congress should give companies carte blanche to use my cell phone number for automated prerecorded messages. They must be required to get my consent before they can send robo-calls to my cell.
I believe there should also be stiff financial penalties for debt collectors who make repeated robo-calls to the wrong phone number or who continue calling after they’ve been asked to stop.
H.R. 3035 is being considered by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Do you support the Mobile Informational Call Act?

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