Coming Soon To Your Cell Phone: Annoying Robo-Calls?

A new bill would lift the ban on automated calls to cell phones. What's worse? You'd have to pay for them

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You’re in an important meeting with your boss and your cell phone rings. You answer it, thinking it could be urgent — and you hear a computerized voice hounding you about your credit card balance.

This kind of automated robo-call to a cell phone is illegal now, but that could be about to change. Bill collectors, the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups want to lift the ban on robo-calls to cell phones — and there is a bill in Congress to do just that. Although telemarketers will still be banned, any company you have given your cell phone number to could use automated dialers to make “informational” calls to you — whether you want the information or not. And they could keep using your number for years — long after you have stopped doing business with them. Consumer groups and cell-phone users are pushing back, trying to keep cell phones off-limits from spam phone calls, but they will have a hard fight ahead of them.

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If you cannot recall ever getting a robo-call on your cell phone, there is a reason: the federal government has prohibited them for the past two decades, or about as long as cell phones have been popular. The logic behind the ban is straightforward. If you get a call on your landline, you do not have to pay for it. But if you get a call on your cell phone — unless you have an unlimited-minutes plan — you are charged. Allowing businesses to make automated calls to cell phones would mean that consumers would have to pay to be dunned by bill collectors or bothered with market research surveys.

There is also a privacy reason for the ban. Cell phones are much more personal than landlines. Users carry them around in their pockets and purses and often bring them to work and to social engagements. A call to a cell phone is generally more intrusive and harder to ignore than one to a home phone.

Industry groups such as the American Bankers Association and the Student Loan Servicing Alliance have thrown their weight behind the Mobile Informational Call Act of 2011, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) that would lift the ban on robo-calls to cell phones. Such groups have been trying to do this for years, but these efforts have taken on a new urgency now that cell phones are starting to replace landlines. More than 90% of Americans have cell phones today — and quarter of all households are cell-phone only. As landlines die off, businesses that rely on telephones to contact people worry that more and more people are escaping their reach. Not surprisingly, lobbyists who are pushing the change are trying to sugarcoat it. It is not about using robo-calls to sell things, they insist, but about providing consumers with information that they need.

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Just think of the important information that the ban is preventing businesses from robo-calling your way, they argue. What if an airline wants to contact you to tell you that it has found your lost luggage? What if the pharmacy wants to tell you that your prescription drug has arrived?

The problem with this argument is that companies are already allowed under current law to contact you with this information — as long as you have given your consent. All the airline and the pharmacist have to do is ask for your permission to (robo-) call. What businesses are trying to do is something different: they are trying to tear down the wall that puts cell phones off limits. The pharmacy that you once gave your phone number to so you could discuss your prescription might decide to robo-call you before every major holiday to let you know that decorations and greeting cards have arrived. Airlines could robo-call to tell you exciting new details about their frequent flyer programs. The group that has the most to gain from lifting the ban is bill collectors — who could robo-call your cell phone repeatedly to provide you with the “information” that they are waiting for your check.

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Automated dialing systems have the power to flood the nation’s cell phones with calls at virtually no cost to the businesses that cause the disturbance. Robo-dialers can make more than 10 calls per second or 864,000 a day. If the Mobile and Informational Call Act passes, the National Association of Consumer Advocates warns, “harassing robo-calls on consumer cell phones will become the new norm.” That might be a dream for retailers and debt collectors, but it would be a nightmare for everyone else.