Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee discussing robocalls
The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee was discussing a proposal to establish criminal penalties for robocalls on Tuesday when Sen. Phil Baruth's (D-Chittenden) phone lit up.
"Here we go," Baruth said. He set his device to speakerphone. A prerecorded voice filled the hearing room: "Get ready for the ultimate vacation!" it said.
"It sounds too good," Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said with a grin.
It's better than some of the messages that scammers send: Many warn that non-existent car warrantees are expiring, or that the Internal Revenue Service is out to arrest the person who answers.
Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) has introduced a bill that would criminalize robocalls, which he described as a "scourge."
"There are few things worse," Brock said, outlining his bill before the committee.
S.324 would prohibit businesses from contacting Vermont consumers using automated phone call software with a few exceptions, such as announcing school closures or appointment reminders. The measure would also allow the state to charge business owners who sponsor illicit calls with fines and jail time.
Brock explained that he was moved to action after receiving his 11th robocall in a single day despite software on his phone meant to screen them.
"I had originally thought about introducing this bill for capital punishment applying only to robocallers," he joked. "But my wife suggested that probably wouldn't be received well."
More than 4.7 billion robocalls have been made by computerized phone systems so far this year, according to estimates from YouMail, which provides call-blocking software for smartphones.
Federal law already allows states to level civil penalties against robocallers. Brock proposed establishing criminal penalties of up to $10,000 in fines and 18 months in prison.
Charity Clark, chief of staff for Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, said the office agrees with the bill in concept. She told lawmakers that the AG's Consumer Assistance Program received more than 5,000 scam reports last year, many of which were about robocalls.
But Clark said the AG's office does not have a dedicated robocall investigator and would be hard-pressed to conduct “meaningful” probes into complaints on its own.
The people behind them are “not in Vermont. They’re often not in the United States. They’re often overseas,” Clark said. “So our enforcement abilities are stymied, and it's really frustrating because we feel like we can't get to the root of the problem."
She cautioned that any new laws would probably not deter much of the behavior. "They don't care that they're breaking the law," she said.
Despite the enforcement challenges, Clark did raise concerns over the bill's maximum prison sentence, which she said was a "severe" penalty for a single call.
“We have laws on the books about assault that have a lesser penalty than that,” she said.
Seeking a more palatable punishment, lawmakers eventually decided on 90 days in jail, but not before committee chair Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) joked that robocallers should simply be sentenced to working in a call center.
Tuesday's hearing vacillated between a comedy routine and a gripe session, as lawmakers recalled their own experiences with robocalls.
Sears,who cosponsored S.324, said he plans to wait a week to move the bill so that the “robocall industry” has a chance to comment.
“If they called in here, though, would it be a scam?” quipped White.
“I think we should take their call,” Sears responded.