On February 19, 2020

Vt. Senate proposes criminal penalties for robocallers

By Xander Landen/VTDigger

A Senate committee is poised to advance legislation that would criminalize robocalls in the state, penalizing illegal callers with up to 90 days in jail or fines up to $10,000.

Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, the lead sponsor of S.324, said he decided to propose the legislation after a day when he received 11 robocalls on his home phone and cellphone.

Vermonters, he said, are receiving millions of the calls each year, and many of them include dangerous scams.

“In a very divided country it is one of the rare things that Democrats, Republicans or Progressives can agree on: Robocalls are almost as bad as black flies, in fact they may be worse,” Brock said.

“A lot of these, though, are also clearly criminal in nature,” he said.

Under the legislation, not all automated calls would be criminalized. Messages from schools, for example, or companies with which a consumer is doing business would not be criminal.

Hiya, a company that tracks the automated calls, estimates there were 54.6 billion in the U.S. between January and November 2019, which represents an increase of more than 100% over 2018.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of the bill, said the measure would “send a signal” to robocall companies.

“If we catch you — and we may not catch many — but if we do, there’s going to be a significant problem for you,” Sears said of robocallers.

Robocalls are already illegal at the federal level, but states have the ability to set their own penalties. In December, President Donald Trump signed legislation that raised the fine that can be issued against robocallers to $10,000, and requires major cellphone carriers to start using technology that helps consumers know whether they’re being targeted by fake numbers.

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office says it is in favor of a law cracking down on robocalls, but it has made clear that it doesn’t have the resources to adequately investigate and enforce penalties.

The AG’s office suspects that offending robocallers aren’t based in-state. They typically operate out-of-state and, in some cases, overseas.

“Unfortunately, they’re not in Vermont, they’re often not in the United States — they’re outside the country,” said Charity Clark, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan’s chief of staff.

“And so we are hard-pressed to prosecute them and enforce laws,” she said.

Clark said the attorney general’s office in Indiana, where robocalls have been banned since 1988, told her enforcement is tough because many of the companies that conduct the calls are foreign and excel at concealing themselves.

Brock said that if his proposal became law he wouldn’t expect the state to set up a “robocall police force” to investigate callers. But he said at very least, it might be able to help the state collect financial penalties from some of the companies that are targeting the state.

“How much this will deter someone in Kazakhstan who is operating a robocall business? I doubt it,” he said. “But on the other hand, there are those folks who are in the United States doing this, and it may have some effect.”

Sears said that he expects the Judiciary Committee to pass the legislation Tuesday, Feb. 18.

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