Photo: Jacquelyn Martin (AP)

What’s the absolute easiest way to unify America today? Go anti-robocall.

Not exactly a brave and controversial stance to condemn the most annoying phenomenon of our time, is it? The English language has a few verboten words. Lately, it seems that “robocall” is creeping up the rankings, alongside “taxes” and “moist.”

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The numbers of robocalls grew an estimated 325 percent in 2018 to 85 billion spam calls, 26.3 billion of which were in America. The FCC itself recently cited a study saying half of all calls made to American cell phones this year will be spam. Put me on permanent silent mode, people.

Wait, hold on, not so fast, says Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly.

“Repeat after me,” O’Rielly said on Thursday. “‘Robocall’ is not a bad word.”

O’Rielly spoke to an audience of debt collectors at ACA International. Debt collectors are one of the country’s most zealous users of robocalls, a tool they deploy to hound people in debt about their bills.

These are not the international and multilingual scams that have made robocalls so famous of late—by some counting, however, robocalls for debts and past-due bills are even more common, according to CNBC. The other great American robocallers: telemarketers. And who doesn’t love them?

Robocalls are a cheap and easy way to call people in debt, sometimes multiple times per day, in order to hound them into paying as quickly as possible. As O’Rielly explained in his speech, “the use of automated technology generally translates into lower costs, freeing up resources for more efficient uses, including lower prices.”

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It costs debt collectors less than a penny per call, according to a recent report in CNBC.

For the past several years, the FCC has made it a priority to crack down on the scourge of illegal robocalling. The debt collector business, however, has found friendly ears at the regulatory agency. Since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the industry has lobbied the FCC to adjust its approach to call blocking and robocalls in order to let the debt collectors through.

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The FCC is currently figuring out the scope of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. A recent D.C. Circuit Court decision pushed the FCC to revisit the rules governing robocalls under the TCPA. Industries like debt collectors and telemarketers are ultimately trying to make sure they can keep the robots ringing you up.

O’Rielly, apparently knowing his audience well, lamented “those who profit from predatory lawsuits”—presumably against debt collectors—and “gotcha regulation purportedly targeting scammers” (the TCPA) that’s actually ruining things for “the good guys.”

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Last year, 78 percent of debt collectors belonging to ACA said they’d had calls blocked. The debt collectors argue that blocking them ultimately hurts consumers who risk falling further behind on debts and dragged to court if they fail to pay.

O’Rielly echoed this sentiment in his speech: “[C]onsumers generally don’t want to miss out on debt collection notices,” O’Rielly claimed. “They want to receive information that would help them prevent delinquency and default, having their utilities cut, or their credit scores plummet. But many businesses have stopped making these crucial calls because the risk is too great.”

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Margot Saunders at the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit working on consumer issues for low-income individuals, told MarketWatch last year that debt collecting robocallers often end up harassing people multiple times per day, including people who don’t owe any money or who have already paid or who cannot pay.

“Debt collectors don’t want to be subject to any limits, and consumers need relief,” Saunders said. They “can send a letter. It’s not like calls are the only way to communicate with people.”

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