On February 10, a bipartisan coalition of 25 state attorneys general, led by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, sent a letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation urging passage of the Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone Calls Act of 2015 (the HANGUP Act). The letter should be of particular interest to companies in the debt collection industry and to marketers who use debt collectors to resolve delinquent accounts.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (the Budget Act) contains a provision, Section 301, that amended the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to allow businesses to use new dialer technology to contact borrowers on cell phones regarding U.S. government-backed debt, such as student loans and VA mortgages. The Budget Act also requires the Federal Communications Commission, in consultation with the Department of Treasury, to promulgate regulations on those calls by August of 2016. The HANGUP Act, introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), repeals those changes.
The letter specifically targets the debt collection industry, noting that "[e]ach year, the largest number of consumer complaints our offices receive are about unwanted telemarketing calls, with robocalls and debt collection calls at the top of the list…It is inappropriate to grant debt collectors the right to harass citizens simply because the debt has a nexus to the federal government when the law specifically prohibits all other private and public entities, including political callers, from doing so."
Indiana Attorney General Zoeller, who has been leading the charge on these issues and is currently running for Congress, issued a strong statement upon the release of the letter: "My attorney general colleagues and I work aggressively in our states to stop unwanted, harassing calls to peoples' landlines and cell phones. This is a huge annoyance to our citizens, and we hear from them every day about it. It's even more frustrating when the federal government actively works to weaken our efforts aimed at protecting and serving our citizens. I urge Congress to stop allowing loopholes that legitimize robocalls and open citizens up to a barrage of unwanted or misplaced calls."
This is just the latest activity in a string of actions from state attorneys general on robocalls and debt collection. In September of 2014, 39 state attorneys general asked the FCC to allow phone companies to use call-blocking technologies at the request of a customer to prevent robocalls. In June of 2015 the FCC adopted a rule change to that effect. In July of 2015, 45 state attorneys general sent a letter to a number of major telecom companies urging them to offer call blocking technology to their subscribers. In November of 2015, the FTC and state attorneys general announced a coordinated federal-state law enforcement "crackdown against abusive debt collectors," and earlier this year they announced the results of those enforcement actions.
Venable's State Attorneys General team will continue to monitor developments in this space. With the National Association of Attorneys General Winter Meeting convening from February 22 to 24 in Washington, DC, more activity is surely yet to come.