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Are Robocalls A Constitutional Right?

If it seems like you’re getting lots of robocalls lately — you’re right. According to YouMail, a national index, New Yorkers received 175 million calls in the last month alone – that’s nearly 60 percent more than last year. In March state politicians introduced a bill that could ban the automated calls. Maddy Foley has more.

FOLEY1: Inez Kattan and her friend, Amber, are standing outside their office building on Wall Street, scrolling through their phones. Amber points to a number registered in Houston.


Amber: And that’s another one, that’s another one… another one, another one… This number actually called my work number first, and then hung up and called my cell phone number.

Inez: I literally just changed my number two weeks ago and Monday, I got my first robocall on my new number. How?! (0:19)

((street ambi down))

FOLEY2: New York is one of the most targeted cities in the country by robocallers. And it turns out, there’s a reason for that.


New York City is one of the chief cities to get robocalls, but it’s because there’s people and money here. As a famous bank robber from the 1920s said, ‘I rob banks because it’s where the money is.’ (0:10)

FOLEY3: That’s Richard Berkeley, who runs New York’s Public Utility Law Project. He says robocall scams often target vulnerable populations, like low-income communities, with urgent messages to pay bills or fake warnings from the IRS.


Or they’ll say, ‘Your service is about to be shut off. You have to get together your cash, go out and buy a gift card because it will only take it in cash right now over the phone’ / and they lose money that might have paid for their children’s medicine. (0:13)

FOLEY4: Robocallers also target recent immigrants, with threats about visa issues, in a language they may not understand. Laurence Hong, chief of staff for Manhattan Assemblyperson Yuh-Line Niou, says it’s hard to measure the total financial loss for New Yorkers, but there are statistics for one robo-scam in particular.


I think the Chinese consulate general scam from last year alone was probably pushing about 20 million. (0:06)

FOLEY5: The cost of robocalls to Member Niou’s constituents have led her to sponsor a statewide bill to stop them. The Robocall Prevention Act would make be the country’s first statewide ban.


It would eliminate a lot of the calls that are scams– scam calls. It just prohibits any person or entity from making robocalls to any telephone number that’s owned by anyone in New York. (0:10)

FOLEY7: But while the Robocall Prevention Act may be popular among robo-weary New Yorkers, the bill is facing pushback. Politicians and unions see robocalls as an important tool for reaching constituents. Making them *all* illegal, they say, violates their First Amendment rights.

FOLEY8: Matt Nelligan is chief-of-staff for Upstate’s Sen. Funke, one of the bill’s more vocal opponents.


We believe that restricting them could be unconstitutional in terms of preventing communication with folks. It’s like taking a hatchet to a problem that deserves a scalpel. (0:09)

FOLEY9: But Laurence Hong from Member Niou’s office argues it’s a problem that might deserve a hatchet.


It’s a very important communication tool in this new era that we have, but at the same time it’s being abused heavily.

FOLEY10: Legislators are working to refine the bill’s language to improve its chance of passing through the senate.

Maddy Foley, Uptown Radio


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