As if there weren’t enough reasons to hate automated calls, here’s another to add to your list — that robocall may be Uncle Sam calling to collect your debts. A new budget agreement that now awaits President Obama’s sign-off would allow companies like Nelnet, Navient, and American Education Services to use those pesky pre-recorded, fill-in-the-blank calls in hopes of getting Americans to make good on what they owe the government, including federal student loans, mortgages, and tax payments. So don’t hang up too quickly — this is one call you may actually need to take.
The great irony in this latest legislation, of course, is that the Federal Communications Commission very recently announced its release of “robocall and telemarketing consumer complaint data weekly to help developers build and improve “do-not-disturb” technologies that allow consumers to block or filter unwanted calls and texts.” Unfortunately, that “do-not-disturb” sign clearly doesn’t apply to government institutions.
According to the Education Department, this initiative would help recent grads remember to pay back their loans on time (as though anyone ever forgets how much money they owe the government. “Many student loan borrowers,” said the agency, “especially those that may just be graduating, move frequently in addition to no longer having landline phone numbers. It can be difficult for servicers to find a borrower except by using a cell phone number.”
But consumer advocates are none too pleased with the proposal. “This will unleash numerous unwanted calls to cellphones,” said Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “If you’re low-income, on a limited cellphone plan and get 10 calls a week, it would be more than invasive, it would be expensive.”
Of course, another salient issue at hand is the effectiveness (or lack thereof) such robocalls will actually have on debt repayment. While a Government Accountability Office report notes that $94 billion worth of student loans went unpaid in 2013 (11 percent of all student loan debt), even the most liberal of estimates doesn’t suggest that permitting robocalls will add much revenue.
CNN reports that “The Congressional Budget Office predicted the money gained would amount to no more than a rounding error.” And the Office of Management and Budget didn’t offer much better news — they’re estimates stand at an additional $12 million a year.
Missouri Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill may have been the most blunt about her feelings regarding the proposal. “This is a stupid idea,” she said. “We should be getting rid of robocalls, not empowering the federal government to make them.”