For a quarter century, federal law has prevented telemarketers from pummeling consumers with unwanted prerecorded robocalls to their cell phones. But a provision tucked into last November’s federal budget deal opened the door for debt collectors to unleash their robocalling prowess in pursuit of borrowers behind on loans issued or backed by the federal government.

The intended target: More than $160 billion in delinquent federal debt payments. No surprise, delinquent and defaulted student loans make up the biggest piece of that pie.

The bad news is that if you’re not current with your student loan payment, your cell phone could soon start buzzing with robocalls from debt collectors. But the nuisance factor should likely be minimal.

The Federal Communications Commission, which was tasked with setting the parameters of what debt collectors are allowed to do when going after federal debt, just released final rules:

  • Debt collectors may make only three prerecorded cell phone calls or texts per month to borrowers with delinquent or defaulted federal debt who have not given their consent to be contacted.
  • The ruling also allows collectors to make three unsolicited monthly calls or texts to debtors who are within 30 days of falling into delinquency or within 30 days of a change in their payment status, such as the end of a forbearance or deferment period.
  • The three-calls-per-month limit is per loan servicer. That’s a big win, given that many borrowers have many loans with the same loan servicer.
  • The debt-collecting robocalls or texts can go only to the borrower or anyone else legally responsible for the debt (i.e., a cosigner.) The FCC explicitly ruled out cell phone robocalls to anyone related to the debtor.
  • The robocall must convey that the borrower has the right to stop the calls immediately.

“In general we are pleased with the rules,” says Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, who has spearheaded the organization’s pushback against robocalling. “It is our goal to restrict calls that are made without consent.”

That said, it's important to understand the narrowness of these rules. They apply just to unwanted cell phone robocalls. Calls to landlines and through VoIP are not covered by this rule. “Live” calls from actual human beings aren't covered. And debt collectors can still, as always, reach out via email and snail mail.

The Calm Before the Robocall Storm?

But a different FCC move in early July could cause an increase in other types of robocalls. The FCC ruled that contractors working for the federal government won’t be held to the rules and regulations in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. While the FCC's new rules limit debt collection robocalls, the earlier ruling could unleash an even broader torrent of robocalls on behalf of contractors working for the federal government.

“It is clear from its ruling on robocalling for federal debt that the FCC has good intentions to protect consumers. We hope it will reconsider its decision on this subsequent rule,” says Margot Saunders, a lawyer working with the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), which spearheaded the push by dozens of public interest groups for strong consumer protections on the federal debt robocalling initiative.

The NCLC also pushed against a subsequent proposal to exclude federal contractors from abiding by the TCPA.

Just a few weeks after that ruling was issued, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler publicly called out the major phone companies and intermediaries to “offer call-blocking services to their customers now"—at no cost.

The fact that robocalling complaints are on pace to reach more than 3.3 million this year—a 50 percent increase over last year—was clearly a motivating factor. The chief executive officer of AT&T has already publicly responded that the firm intends to finally lean into the problem, and offered to spearhead a Robocalling Strike Force.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” says Consumers Union's Mahoney. “But we are also concerned that this not be another task force that doesn’t achieve anything.”

How to Reduce Robocalls

In the meantime, take these steps to reduce the number of robocalls you receive.

Cell phones. Robocall-blocking apps are more effective than manually blocking calls. The trade association for the cell phone industry has a list of blocking apps for Android and iOS.

VoIP. Try the free NoMoRobo if you have an internet-based phone line.

Landline. Consider the Digitone Call Blocker Plus; it's not cheap, with a current list price of $100.

In issuing its final ruling on federal debt robocalls, the FCC acknowledged that it had received a substantial number of comments advocating for strict restrictions.

As the push for broader robocalling limits continues, you can add your voice to the more than 600,000 consumers who have signed Consumer Union’s petition to end robocalls.

How to Deal With Robocalls and Robotexts

Annoyed by robocalls and spam text messages on your mobile phone? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Margot Gilman offers advice to host Jack Rico on how to deal with these spammers.