January 15, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
With the start of the new year, it’s important to frame our goals and identify consumer priorities for the coming months. The new Congress brings a renewed opportunity to re-evaluate regulations that will benefit consumers in 2019.
Let’s start with the much-needed clarification of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. In the early 1990s, before the rise of modern communication devices such as cellphones, Congress passed the TCPA with good intentions — preventing those pesky robocalls from people you’ve never heard of. But they also ended up impacting the way legitimate businesses are able to conduct important communications with consumers.
Now, nearly three decades later, the TCPA has expanded to include unsolicited communications from parties providing relevant information important to consumers, such as updates from schools, pharmacies or restaurants. This is due primarily to a vague definition of what constitutes an automated telephone dialing system, or “autodialer.” The definition in the initial legislation is too broad and doesn’t address key differences between a system having the “capacity” to be an autodialer and one that actually has the current ability and is acting as an autodialer.
We have reached a point where outdated regulations and unclear guidance on the application of TCPA rules have entangled businesses and consumers in a web of confusion. It is undeniable that consumers are harmed if they are receiving abusive and harassing telemarketing calls, but the TCPA has failed to adequately address these burdensome telemarketing scams to provide consumers with relief and businesses with certainty.
Instead, it has needlessly prohibited consumers from getting the information they need from trusted sources when they need it. It’s time for regulators to clarify the definition of an ATDS and to draw greater distinctions between fraudulent actors and legitimate business communications using a predictive dialer that does not randomly call phone numbers, but only calls the customers they serve.
Thankfully, the Federal Communications Commission took strides in 2018 to address these issues, but it still has a way to go to get a solution past the finish line. Hopefully, 2019 will be the year businesses receive clarity, and consumers can again receive communications from their trusted information providers.
While updates to TCPA could be a quick and easy win for consumers in 2019, there are other onerous undertakings Washington should consider in the new year, such as updates to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s consumer complaint database. This database was established as a platform for consumers to submit their complaints and receive assistance from the CFPB when applicable. While this represents an important tool for the overall mission of the CFPB, the methodology for collecting and categorizing the complaints is highly flawed.
Industries are unfairly lumped together without adequately categorizing complaints across various sectors. Even worse, there is no way to distinguish between complaints, comments or inquiries, often resulting in inaccurate data. A recent report by the CFPB outlined this problem and highlighted the need for clearer distinctions between consumer inquiries and consumer complaints.
With all of this misinformation, it’s hard for consumers to identify bad actors from good. If changes were made to the system, consumers could be better served by the bureau. New CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger brings a renewed commitment to creating regulations that address consumer needs, while also creating an environment for businesses success. With this mindset, 2019 could be the year the CFPB gets back on track and updates its complaint collection and reporting protocols.
From clarifying guidelines for the TCPA, to providing an appropriately tailored definition of what is considered an ATDS, to establishing an accurate complaint portal through the CFPB, there is much for Washington to tackle on behalf of American consumers this year. Let’s hope they can avoid Washington gridlock and take action swiftly.
Matthew Kandrach is president of CASE, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market-oriented consumer advocacy organization.
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