Consumer financial service providers must work with counsel to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure that legitimate telephone calls, including from creditors and debt collectors, are not snared by the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009 (TCIDA).

The FCC must adopt regulations implementing the TCIDA, enacted on December 22, 2010, no later than June 23, 2011. Although intended to target scammers who engage in caller ID spoofing, the TCIDA could adversely affect legitimate calls if the FCC fails to provide appropriate exemptions, as it has with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The TCIDA, P.L. 111-331, amends the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit any person within the United States, unless excepted by FCC regulations, “to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” The prohibition applies to calls made using any telecommunications service or Internet protocol-enabled voice service.

Because the TCIDA neglects to define “misleading or inaccurate” caller ID information or the phrases “cause harm” or “wrongfully obtain anything of value,” it could conceivably be interpreted to reach collection calls by creditors and debt collectors that do not involve legally false information simply if the person called can allege some breach of privacy, emotional distress, or a mistake or technical deficiency of some kind as to any amount paid as the result of the call.

Significantly, the TCIDA could apply to collection calls when any of the following occurs:

  • A registered name under which the caller does business is displayed, rather than the caller’s legal name.
  • An abbreviated version of the caller’s legal name is displayed, rather than the caller’s complete legal name.  
  • A caller’s legal name is displayed, but to comply with state and federal debt collection laws, the name does not indicate the purpose of the call and might even suggest a purpose other than debt collection.

Similarly, calls in which the phone number is displayed as a local number could potentially be deemed “misleading or inaccurate” if the call originates from a different area code or from a foreign country, even if the caller owns the local number, the call is routed through the local number, or the caller may be contacted using the local number. Likewise, indicating that a phone number is “unavailable” might be characterized as causing a caller identification service to transmit misleading information, even though the TCIDA expressly states that it does not prevent or restrict individuals from blocking information.

Although the TCIDA does not include a private right of action, it authorizes state Attorneys General and any other state officers authorized to bring actions on behalf of state residents to bring parens patriae civil actions in federal court to enforce the new prohibition or to impose draconian civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation, up to $30,000 per day for each day of a continuing violation, or up to $1 million for any single act or failure to act. Civil actions may be filed whenever a state Attorney General or other officer “has reason to believe that the interests of the residents of the State have been or are being threatened or adversely affected” by a violation of the TCIDA or the FCC’s implementing regulations. The TCIDA also provides that violators are subject to criminal fines and imprisonment