Feds to South Florida robocaller: Pay all of record fine, Abramovich

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a statement of considerable length, says a South Florida robocaller’s arguments don’t wash and he should pay every penny of a record $120 million fine.

As The Palm Beach Post reported, the FCC found Adrian Abramovich of Miami “is the perpetrator of one of the largest — and most dangerous — illegal robocalling campaigns that the Commission has ever investigated, making nearly 100 million robocalls in just a three-month period.”

The calls disrupted emergency lines, tying up a medical paging company among others, and misled consumers to think they were getting deals from companies like TripAdvisor, Expedia, Marriott and Hilton, officials said. Instead, consumers were directed to a discount-travel call center not affiliated with those firms, according to investigators.

Officials say making prerecorded telemarketing phone calls to people without prior consent is prohibited, and so is making them to emergency lines and deliberately falsifying caller ID to disguise identity with the intent to harm or defraud consumers.

Here’s the full statement from FCC chairman Ajit Pai issued Thursday:

“After the FCC proposed fining Adrian Abramovich $120 million last year for allegedly engaging in a massive spoofed robocall scheme, we gave him the chance to contest the allegations.  Mr. Abramovich did in fact respond to our Notice of Apparent Liability.  That response is more notable for what it doesn’t say than what it does.

Specifically, Mr. Abramovich doesn’t dispute that he was responsible for placing 96,758,223 robocalls during a three-month period in 2016.

He doesn’t dispute that all these robocalls were made without the recipient’s consent.

And he doesn’t dispute that all these robocalls were accompanied by inaccurate caller ID information, making it appear as though they were coming from the same community as the party being called, a practice known as ‘neighbor spoofing.’

What Mr. Abramovich does have to say in his defense isn’t very convincing.  For example, he asserts that he had ‘no intent . . . to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value.’  But if so, why did he include fraudulent caller ID information with each and every one of his 96 million robocalls?  Friendly visitors don’t wear disguises to mask who they are.  And why did the recorded messages indicate that the calls came from well-known travel or hospitality companies such as Marriott, Expedia, Hilton, and TripAdvisor, even though they were attempting to sell vacation packages at destinations unrelated to those named companies?

Moreover, Mr. Abramovich didn’t just have the intent to defraud or cause harm.  He actually caused harm.  Just ask his victims—a number of whom are elderly—who were duped into purchasing travel deals under false pretenses.  Or ask Spōk, a Virginia-based medical paging service whose emergency communications services were disrupted by a flood of robocalls attributed to Mr. Abramovich’s companies.

Mr. Abramovich also claims that the consumers who received these robocalls were only harmed if the calls lasted for at least five minutes.  So he says he should only be penalized for calls that long or longer.  With all due respect, this is a ridiculous argument.  I haven’t met a single American who likes getting these kinds of robocalls, regardless of length.  And in any case, our rules against caller-ID spoofing certainly don’t permit spoofed robocalls so long as they string you along for 4:59 or less.

Tough enforcement is a key part of the FCC’s robust strategy for combatting illegal robocalls, and this Forfeiture Order represents a big step forward in our enforcement efforts.  This is the largest illegal robocalling scheme that the FCC has investigated to date, and we are appropriately imposing a $120 million forfeiture in response.  This is the largest forfeiture in the history of the FCC.  Our decision sends a loud and clear message: this FCC is an active cop on the beat and will throw the book at anyone who violates our spoofing and robocall rules and harms consumers.

We would not have arrived at this result without the hard work of the Enforcement Bureau’s dedicated staff.  They spent countless hours combing through the evidence and pulling investigatory threads together.  I want to thank Vilma Anderson, Tamara Baxter, Jonathan Garvin, Lisa Gelb, Rosemary Harold, Richard Hindman, Lisa Landers, Latashia Middleton, Nakasha Ramsey, Stacy Ruffin Smith, Michael Scurato, Daniel Stepanicich, Kristi Thompson, Kimbarly Taylor, Kim Thorne, Melanie Tiano, Bridgette Washington, and Lisa Williford.  You will continue to have our support as you seek to bring to justice the scofflaws and scammers who for too long have been bombarding Americans with unlawful robocalls.”

Attempts to reach Abramovich or an attorney were not immediately successful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Lifeline “Obamaphone” program now offers Internet subsidies

obamaphone

This Cleveland woman’s reference to the Lifeline subsidy program

as the “Obamaphone” received widespread coverage.

Low-income consumers who have been eligible for a monthly discount on landline or wireless phone service can now opt to receive a subsidy for Internet service instead, the Florida Public Service Commission said Tuesday.

The Federal Lifeline Assistance Program has been a voice-only program, but the Federal Communications Commission has expanded it to include high-speed broadband.

The subsidy available in the program sometimes referred to as the “Obamaphone program” remains at one $9.25 per month discount per household.

The program has been fraught with fraud some critics have placed at $500 million a year, and some have called for it to be ended.  Telecom companies have allowed participants to receive more than one subsidy per household if they checked a box indicating they lived in a separate household, even though the addresses were the same, according to published reports.

However, the FCC voted March 31 to expand the subsidy to include Internet access and the changes took effect this month.

The Lifeline program has an annual budget of $2.25 billion and is primarily paid for by a tax on consumers’ phone bills. The Universal Service Fund costs the average U.S. household between $2.88 and $3.52 a month, and $1.75 of that goes to Lifeline.

The FCC’s new new order facilitates market entry for broadband providers and also:

  • Imposes graduated minimum fixed and mobile broadband service standards and minimum mobile voice minute requirements.
  • Establishes a National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier database to determine Lifeline eligibility.

Under the FCC’s new rules, an eligible low-income customer may choose to have his or her Lifeline subsidy applied to voice service or broadband service, if available. The FCC’s policy states that only one Lifeline subsidy may be provided per household, meaning that a customer cannot apply the discount to both a fixed and a wireless service, nor can multiple individuals within a household receive the subsidy.

The Lifeline Program has been streamlined to limit the eligibility criteria to:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Security Income
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance
  • The Veteran’s Pension or Survivor’s Pension benefit
  • Income-based eligibility

 

Consumers at or below 135 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines and those who qualified previously through any of the Tribal criteria will continue to be eligible for a Lifeline Program benefit. To see all service offerings, contact your provider of choice that is authorized to provide Lifeline discounts.

For more information about Lifeline, visit the PSC’s website at www.floridapsc.com

Unwanted robocalls? Just block them, FCC chief tells phone companies

Consumers Union applauds FCC chair for telling phone companies to block unwanted robocalls.
Consumers Union applauds FCC chair for telling phone companies to block unwanted robocalls.

There’s nothing consumers hate more than unwanted robocalls. Even if your phone number is on the Do Not Call registry, they seem to be unstoppable.

Last year Consumers Union launched its End Robocalls campaign calling on the phone companies to take action.

Friday it applauded Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, who in  letters sent Thursday, asked the nation’s largest phone companies to provide their customers with free tools to block unwanted robocalls. Wheeler has given them 30 days to respond with a plan for doing so.

Wheeler sent letters to AT&T, Bandwidth.com, CenturyLink, Frontier Communications, Level 3 Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular and Verizon.

Robocalls are the top consumer complaint reported to the FCC, which received more than 3.5 million complaints from consumers about unwanted calls last year. Almost half of these calls occurred after the consumer requested that the caller stop contacting them.

“Consumers want and deserve more control over their calls they receive,” Wheeler said in the FCC’s blog.

For years the phone companies argued that they were prevented from blocking robocalls because they were legally obligated to make sure all calls reached the intended recipient. But last year the FCC made it clear that phone companies have the legal authority to block unwanted calls.

“Consumers are tired of being hounded by robocalls that interrupt their privacy and are often used by crooks to commit fraud,” said Tim Marvin, who heads up Consumers Union’s End Robocalls campaign. “The phone companies need to start listening to their customers who are desperate for relief. The time for action is long overdue.”

Robocalls are more than just a nuisance. Telephone scammers use robocalls to rip off seniors and other vulnerable consumers, resulting in an estimated $350 million in financial losses every year, Consumers Union said.