Reassigned Numbers: Commenters Embrace Database, Split on Safe Harbor

TCPA Connect

Of the dozens of comments filed in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) request on how to handle the problem of reassigned numbers, the majority appeared to support the agency’s plan to establish a central database, although opinions differed on the details.

In July, the FCC released a Notice of Inquiry asking for feedback on handling unwanted phone calls to reassigned numbers. Feedback included questions about the ways in which providers could report number reassignments and what information should be reported.

The agency also sought comment on the appropriate mechanism for reporting, suggesting the creation of a central database of reassigned numbers, where providers could report information and robocallers could turn for a list. Options included FCC oversight of the database, each voice service provider operating its own list, a publicly available database or having providers report reassigned number information to robocallers directly.

Many commenters expressed support for the FCC’s plan to establish a database of reassigned numbers as well as the related idea of a corresponding safe harbor for companies that scrubbed their calling lists based on the database.

For example, the American Bankers Association (ABA) backed the centrally administered database, “urg[ing] the Commission to provide a safe harbor” for companies that utilize it. Numbers reassigned prior to the creation of the database or numbers reassigned in the gap between updates may not be on the list and a safe harbor is necessary to protect callers in such situations, the ABA said.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) took a similar stance. Its members unanimously selected the concept of a centralized database overseen by the FCC, the NRF reported, as well as the creation of a safe harbor, which “provides an incentive for callers to spend the money and apply its own resources to develop procedures for accessing and utilizing the reassigned number information, resulting in fewer ‘wrong number’ calls to consumers and fewer TCPA lawsuits for callers who are caught unaware of a number reassignment.”

Alternatively, other commenters praised the database idea but sought to limit the safe harbor. Together, eight consumer groups (including the National Consumer Law Center, Public Citizen and Consumer Action) joined forces to advocate for a “simple, inexpensive, ubiquitous and transparent” design of a database, with all telephone service providers required to participate.

The groups did not object to “a short and finite grace period for users of the database,” limited to those callers that used the database within 24 hours of making the call where the list provided inaccurate information and no calls were made after the caller was informed it was the wrong number. But the comment opposed a broader safe harbor from liability “simply for using the database.”

Why it matters: Identifying reassigned numbers with only imperfect market solutions available is one of the biggest problems created by the FCC’s July 2015 ruling. The solution of establishing a central database for reassigned numbers appeared to receive support from the majority of commenters, with disagreement found in the debate over the creation of a safe harbor. Industry groups such as the ABA and the NRF advocated for the safe harbor, emphasizing the potential for liability under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the “excessive litigation” they could face as a result of an error. Alternatively, consumer groups argued against the need for total relief from liability and instead pushed for more limited protection based on use of the database. Now that the time period for comments has ended, the FCC will hopefully review the submissions and make a decision about how to move forward in short order.

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