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Americans are sick of robocalls. Can Congress agree on how to block them?

Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- Fake charity appeals or IRS tax delinquency notices. Tricks that tempt you to call an overseas hotline -- and rack up expensive charges. By one estimate, Americans lost more than $10 billion thanks to scam phone calls over the last year.

And thanks to a combination of new technology and legal ambiguity, autodial marketing calls -- both legitimate and illegitimate -- are on the rise. The call-blocking company YouMail reports that U.S. consumers received 48 billion robocalls last year, and they are now the largest source of consumer complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.

This explosion of so-called robocalls has prompted growing anger among consumers and a rare moment of bipartisan action in Congress. The Senate passed legislation to rein in spam calls by a vote of 97 to 1 in May. The House passed its own version of robocall legislation nearly unanimously in late July -- just three of Congress' 435 members voted against it.

But while lawmakers across the political spectrum agree that scam calls are bad and should be prevented, they're still debating just how far Americans can go to avoid annoying robocalls, particularly ones that aren't fraudulent.

The House's Stopping Bad Robocalls Act directs regulators to grant sweeping new powers to consumers to keep robocallers at bay. It would expand the types of calls Americans can opt out of and that phone companies can block. It would also require phone carriers to update their call authentication technology to prevent what's known as "spoofing" -- where a spam caller impersonates a local number in the recipient's area.

But to become law, the bill's sponsors must reconcile their language with the Senate version, which consumer advocates say is weaker on some key issues.

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Industries that rely on telemarketers, including banking, mortgage servicers and debt collectors, have spent millions of dollars on lobbying so far this year, lobbying disclosure reports show, including against portions of the House bill they argue go too far.

The Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of other advocacy groups warned in an April 29 letter to lawmakers that the House bill would "harm businesses and consumers by impeding legitimate calls that consumers actually need or want.

As examples, the letter cited "Fraud alerts, data breach notifications, reminders to renew prescriptions or schedule a visit to the doctor, notifications of power outages, and automobile recall notices."

Consumer groups, which have just a fraction of the lobbying firepower, have voiced support for both the Senate and House bills. But they are pushing for many of the tougher proposals in the House version be included in the final legislation.

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