US Lawmakers Propose Prison Sentences for Illegal Robocallers (But Would They Ever Be Used?)

A bill submitted by Rep. David Kristoff (pictured left) would give courts the power to impose a one-year prison sentence for first-time violators of the United States’ Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), and sentences of up to three years for repeat and egregious offenders. Putting the people who make illegal robocallers in prison would be a significant game-changer because it would actually deter other criminals. There is only one problem: nobody has any reason to believe prosecutors would actually secure any convictions involving prison time.

American legislators love inventing contrived acronyms for their laws, and the Deter Obnoxious, Nefarious, and Outrageous Telephone Calls Act of 2023 satisfies that requirement by spelling out the words DO NOT Call (except for the missing ‘s’ at the end). The same bill has been proposed multiple times since 2018 in both the House of Representatives and the Senate but has never made much progress. One possible explanation is that the bill is an empty stunt, designed to make Kristoff and co-sponsor Rep. Deborah Ross (pictured right) appear tough on an issue that outrages most voters. Ross sponsored the same bill in previous sittings of Congress, for what little that accomplished.

The telltale sign that this bill is not a serious attempt to deliver reform comes in the section calling for increased fines. If passed, the DO NOT Call Act would double the limit on financial penalties for CLI spoofing from USD10,000 to USD20,000 per call. USD10,000 per call is already an excessively large penalty. The worst robocall campaigns involve many millions of calls. Prosecutors only need to substantiate evidence of spoofing for a tiny portion of those calls in order to rack up multi-million dollar punishments that criminals cannot afford to pay. The result is that prosecutors generate fantastically large nominal penalties that are published as headlines by gullible journalists but which nobody then seeks to collect in practice. On the contrary, most prosecutions end with a settlement where the criminals accept their theoretical punishment but are expressly permitted to pay nothing because they submitted financial statements that assert they cannot afford to.

I hope the bill is enacted, but past experience suggests it will not be allocated enough time to progress to a proper vote by legislators. This would spare them the embarrassment of needing to unanimously support a law that will draw attention to the failures of a legal system that paid the wages of most of these politicians before they were elected to Congress. If prosecutors actually succeeded in confiscating some of the money and assets of illegal robocallers using the penalties already available then there would be reason to believe courts might start imposing custodial punishments too. But if prosecutors continue to offer hollow settlements, just to spare themselves the work involved in tackling a criminal that is motivated to offer a serious legal defense, then higher theoretical penalties will not deliver a genuine deterrent.

For what it is worth, you can obtain the full text of the proposed DO NOT Call Act from here.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.