A rule proposed by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) last week would limit debt collectors' access to the cell phones of people who owe money to the federal government--a rule that will have a big impact on people with student loans from the Department of Education.
The federal government has long had unfettered access to the cell phones of people who owe money to Uncle Sam, through the private debt collectors the government hires to recover those loans. Automated robo calls, which include text messages, have become a cheap and easy way for debt collectors to contact borrowers. Borrowers, meanwhile, have become subject to excessive contact, getting calls on a daily--or hourly--basis.
The FCC's proposal calls for limiting debt collectors to three robo calls per month for each delinquent loan. The rule has entered a 30-day comment period. Advocates for people with federal debt who are on the receiving end of these tactics reacted positively.
"The FCC's proposal to limit the number of robocalls and texts made without consent to three a month is a very strong consumer protection," said National Consumer Law Center attorney Margot Saunders.
"We are also glad to see that the proposal will count each initiated call as one call," said Consumers Union's advocate Maureen Mahoney. "One of the most important proposed protections requires that callers obey consumers' request to stop calling. Indeed, the proposal would require that debt collection callers notify consumers of this right to request that calls stop."
Alexis Goldstein, a Senior Policy Analyst with Americans for Financial Reform, applauded the FCC "for proposing to limit the rule to debts that are delinquent, which will prevent unwanted robocalls calls for accounts which are in good standing."
The rule would also likely minimize a burden from the FCC itself--having to respond to robo call complaints. Over 1.7 million complaints are made to the FCC annually due to unwanted robo calls.
An industry source noted that the FCC finalized the rule last June. "Private businesses were incensed, because they are not allowed to do robo calls without consent for private loans--but the government will allow them to do it as long as they are collecting on federal debt," the source said.
The National Consumer Law Center noted that these consumer protections are currently included only in the FCC's narrative order--not in the proposed rule itself. Consumer advocates are planning to urge the FCC to incorporate all of the relevant language in the final rule.
The FCC is required to rule on robo calls by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly has said that three calls per month is not enough, citing data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which recommends two calls per week, and the Treasury Department, which recommends four per week.