Opinion

Will the Supreme Court Shield Americans From Unwanted Robocalls?

Fed up, having received thousands of unwanted and unstoppable automated text messages on his cell phone, Bill Dominguez filed a lawsuit against Yahoo under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Despite his repeated “stop” replies to the texts, as well as numerous conversations with Yahoo’s customer service,  Dominguez received 27,809 automated text messages intended for the previous owner of his telephone number. Even the Federal Communications Commission was unable to convince Yahoo to stop sending the automated texts to Dominquez. Only after filing a lawsuit did the texts finally stop.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding this case which will affect nearly every person living in the United States, as it will determine whether unwanted automated texts and calls, just as those sent to Dominguez, are covered by the protections of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. In this case – Facebook v. Duguid – Noah Duguid asserts that, like Dominquez, he received repeated automated text messages meant for someone else. Facebook is arguing that the court should so narrowly define the provisions of the TCPA that these automated texts and calls could be sent in unlimited numbers without the consent of the cellphone user.

By enacting the TCPA in 1991, Congress provided a mechanism to protect consumers and businesses from unwanted and intrusive calls. The linchpin of the TCPA is the prior consent requirement – intended to give the people being called control over their phones. A narrow definition of the TCPA – as proposed by the calling industry (led by Facebook) – would rob consumers of their ability to control and limit autodialed calls and texts to their cellphones. It would open the floodgates to scam calls preying on older Americans and student loan servicers’ calls and texts that reach borrowers who have revoked consent.

Older Americans make more purchases by phone, a lot more, and their familiarity with shopping over the phone can potentially mask the risks of providing sensitive information to callers. And falling for one fraud can land elders on a scammer’s so-called “suckers list,” a list of phone numbers belonging to elders likely to fall victim to future scams. If the Supreme Court rules to support Facebook and the robocallers, state and federal regulators and telephone providers will have much more difficulty identifying and stopping these unwanted and dangerous calls. The horrors that this would cause to the American public are discussed in a brief filed by 37 state attorneys general to the Supreme Court.

Student debtors would also be negatively impacted by a ruling in favor of Facebook. A 2019 study found that more than 1 in 3 college students have at least $1,000 in credit card debt. It is no wonder that nearly half of the top 50 robocallers in recent months are credit card companies. And student loan servicers like Navient have been the subject of numerous lawsuits over autodialed robocalls, including from one student loan debtor who received more than 500 harassing calls after begging for the calls to stop, and another consumer who received over 1,500 calls for a loan that was not his. A wrong ruling by the Supreme Court would deny credit card holders and student borrowers a say in who can autodial their cell phones, and would usher in an unlimited and unstoppable stream of these calls.

People of color will also be disproportionally harmed by a ruling for Facebook. Debt collection calls make up a considerable slice of robocalls to consumers – and these calls disproportionately impact communities of color. A FINRA Investor Education Foundation survey found that borrowers of color were called nearly twice as often as white borrowers despite similar rates of default and late payments. If the decision favors Facebook’s position, the TCPA will no longer provide any method to stop or limit debt collection calls to cell phones.

The TCPA is consumers’ last line of defense against a robocall epidemic that threatens to exploit the most vulnerable among us. The U.S. Supreme Court should support Congress’ efforts to protect consumers from unwanted autodialed calls and text messages, and apply a broad definition to the technology used to contact consumers en masse. Americans are largely united in their disdain for invasive robocalls. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will uphold their right to stop them.

Margot Saunders is senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center. 

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