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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ringless voicemail: Florida breaks ground with new law

The phone never rings. But somehow you have a voicemail. It’s a business selling something, even though you’re on the Do Not Call list. Is that legal?

Not in Florida as of July 1. This week Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 568, which expands the Do Not Call list to include direct-to-voicemail sales calls.

That puts the state at the forefront of blocking such messages, said William E. Raney, a Kansas City attorney whose firm, Copilevitz & Canter, advises clients on telemarketing laws.

“As far as I know, it’s unique,” Raney said. “Florida is the first state legislature I know of that has explicitly said that.”

Technology often gets out ahead of regulation in such matters. A petition by telemarketing concerns to ask the Federal Communications Commission to rule such messages are not subject to Do Not Call rules — because they never ring — was withdrawn last year without a ruling under a cloud of adverse publicity.

But it’s already out there. One consumer filed a lawsuit against a Naples, Florida car dealer for using such tactics. The case has since been settled without a court ruling, a Florida Senate staff analysis noted.

Three states not including Florida raised a stink about the FCC petition made by a telemarketing concern called All About The Message, The Palm Beach Post reported last year.

“Granting companies a free pass to push ringless voice messages to consumers’ phones just adds more robocalls and causes significant financial harm to those who are charged for checking their messages,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

It’s a move that can defeat many call-blocking apps, states argued. Some phone plans have limits or charge fees for storing and checking messages. Unbridled, it could leave consumers with virtually no control over technology that can pump out such calls literally by the billions.

Consider: An estimated 2.8 billion robocalls, or automated calls of all kinds, were made to U.S. consumers in the month of December alone. In 2017, the FCC received 155,282 consumer complaints about robocalls, including federal Do Not Call List violations, call spoofing, and solicitations made by an automated recording, the staff of the Florida Senate’s rules committee noted.

Attempts  to seek comment from an industry group, the Professional Association for Customer Engagement, were not immediately successful. But some in the business make the case such messages are less disruptive than regular calls.

“The act of depositing a voice mail on a voice mail service without dialing a consumers’ cellular telephone line does not result in the kind of disruptions to a consumer’s life — dead air calls, calls interrupting consumers at inconvenient times or delivery charges to consumers,” All About The Message argued in its FCC petition.

Florida’s law does not mean you will never receive a ringless voicemail if you are on the Do Not Call list, however.  First, some scofflaw telemarketers ignore Do Not Call for all sorts of messages. They are often based in other countries or using fake or “spoofed” numbers, and they know it’s hard to police them in an age of global calling by way of the Internet. At best they are using questionable methods to steer leads to legitimate businesses. At worst they’re outright scams trying to steal money or personal information.

But there’s also this: the law allows certain calls by schools, non-profit and charitable groups, or people taking surveys. Florida law says the Do Not Call restrictions do not apply to “a charitable or political organization that is seeking donations,” according to the Senate staff analysis.

Speaking of politics, the Republican National Committee filed a brief with the FCC arguing ringless voicemails, even by commercial advertisers, should be OK. Why? With no ring, it “does not constitute a call” that is subject to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the RNC’s brief said. The RNC further expressed concerns an adverse ruling could inhibit free political speech protected by the First Amendment.

While the dust settles on what is legal for political direct-voicemailers, there’s also the practical question of  whether it’s a smart marketing play at this point. Publicity over the FCC petition — which set the stage for Florida’s law — suggests not everyone views ringless voicemails as a delightful surprise to brighten their day.

To get on the Do Not Call list, go here:

https://www.donotcall.gov/

 

 

 

Robocalls: Feds OK new tools to fight IRS scam, others

Consumers receive an estimated 2.4 billion illegal robocalls a month, and many come with caller ID that can make it look like calls are from across town or an official government agency like the IRS.

Federal regulators took action this week to make it easier for phone companies to block some of these numbers before they ever get to your phone.

The idea is to allow “phone companies to proactively block calls that are likely to be fraudulent because they come from certain types of phone numbers,” the Federal Communications Commission said about rules approved Thursday.

Take calls that seem to be from the IRS to collect taxes owed, a common scam. The IRS does not operate that way, but many spooked consumers do not know that and are victimized by fraud or identity theft. Sometimes automated messages threaten fines or prison unless you call a certain number or take some action to pay up quick.

Bad actors often use “spoofed” numbers that are not really the source of the call. In some instances, they use this trick: They select real IRS phone numbers that only work on inbound calls, and don’t dial out, to carry out their impersonation, officials say.

Now such numbers can be placed a “do not originate” list that phone companies can consult to block the calls. Also targeted for blockage: Numbers with area codes that do not exist, numbers that have not been assigned to a legitimate user and similar red-flag categories.

To file a complaint about a caller you suspect is falsely claiming to be from the government or otherwise using a false identity, let the Federal Trade Commission know:

https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/

 

 

 

Senate toughens spoofing laws as robocaller fined $81M

Update 5 p.m.: The U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation Thursday to crack down on spoofing, or falsifying caller ID.

The bill whose sponsors include Florida Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson aims to strengthen a 2010 law that prohibits scammers from altering caller ID information on calls made in the U.S.  The legislation expands that ban to spoofing using text messages, calls made over the Internet and calls originating from a foreign country.

“Fighting scam artists is like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole,” Nelson said. “Once you think you’ve stopped them, they find other ways to continue to carry out their scams.  This bill will better enable the government to punish fraudsters who use new technologies to pray on unsuspecting victims.”

The House passed a similar but not identical version in January.  The Senate bill now heads to the House where they can opt to take it up and send it to the president or choose to go to conference on it, Senate aides said.  Given that the House is now in recess, nothing can happen until they return in September.

Original post: An illegal robocaller pitching health insurance got handed a proposed $81 million fine for faking caller ID numbers to hide who was really behind more than 21 million automated sales calls, federal officials said Thursday.

That comes on the heels of a record $120 million fine for a South Florida robocaller  hawking travel deals announced in June.

The target of Thursday’s action, Philip Roesel and his company, Best Insurance Contracts Inc. doing business as Wilmington Insurance Quotes, acted with evident “gall,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.

Pai said, “The record shows that he instructed his employees which consumers to pick on: ‘the dumber and more broke the better.’  He was even quoted as repeatedly bragging and ‘joking’ to co-workers that his actions were minor legal violations, akin to driving above the speed limit. But today, the whole operation hits a big speed bump.”

WHY COMPLAIN ABOUT ROBOCALLS? NEW CRACKDOWN IS WHY

Roesel did not immediately return a call to what a company website says is his cell phone number.

His North Carolina-based firm targeted “elderly, infirm and low-income families,” U.S. officials said.  A company website refers to generating leads for Medicare supplement coverage and other products, many aimed at seniors.

Robocallers have often found Florida an attractive target, with the nation’s highest share of residents over 65, many on fixed income.

ILLEGAL ROBOCALLS TRACED TO SOUTH FLORIDA DRAW RECORD FINE

The law prohibits “spoofing,” or deliberately falsifying caller ID information, to disguise a caller’s identity with the intent to harm, defraud consumers, or wrongfully obtain anything of value, according to the FCC.

Roesel’s company made more than 200,000 robocalls a day and 21.5 million in all, agency officials said. They subpoenaed call records from last October to January.

Spoofed calls can make it appear a call is coming from a local number or an ordinary person, not a telemarketing company using a fixed number that consumers may wish to block or avoid. In other cases, scammers have even faked caller IDs that seem to be from the IRS, Microsoft or the local sheriff’s office.

“Consumers rely on caller ID information to make decisions about what calls to accept, ignore, or block,” an FCC statement said. “Accurate caller ID information is a vital tool that consumers use to protect their privacy, avoid fraud, and ensure peace of mind.”

 

 

Robocalls: Why complain? New crackdown is why, FTC says

If you are sick of unwanted automated calls, there’s a new reason announced Tuesday to add your voice to the No. 1 gripe to the Federal Trade Commission with more than 1.9 million complaints in 2017.

You’re not just piling on by letting them know robocalls are driving you nuts. You’re giving regulators the specific number and subject of the call to help the industry better block these calls before they ever get to your phone.

Agency officials said when consumers report Do Not Call or robocall violations, the numbers provided will be released each day to telecommunications carriers and their partners carrying out efforts to block the calls.

“Sharing the critical information from consumers’ unwanted call complaints to enable industry innovators to stop illegal robocalls is exactly the type of public-private partnership the FTC champions,” said Acting Chairman Maureen K. Ohlhausen.

The FTC will make available updated reports of what’s stirring up complaints, including the subject matter like debt reduction, energy, warranties, home security and so on.

It won’t solve every problem because telemarketers can change numbers and use “spoofed” or falsified ones, but federal officials said it will help make life more difficult for telemarketers not following the law.

Telemarketers are not supposed to call numbers on the Do Not Call registry or make automated sales calls without written permission. Some companies blatantly ignore these restrictions and such calls often promote scams, officials said.

Certain robocalls are allowed, such as the school district announcing classes are canceled or candidates running for office.

Report complaints here: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/

 

FCC: Illegal robocalls traced to South Florida draw biggest fine ever

A federal agency has proposed its largest fine ever, $120 million, for illegal robocalls that “spoofed” or falsely identified the caller.

An investigation led them to a man in South Florida they say is responsible for a stunning 97 million such automated calls in the last quarter of 2016 alone.

The Federal Communications Commission said in a written order Thursday that 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, at one point tying up a medical paging company, and misled consumers to think they were getting deals from companies like TripAdvisor, Expedia, Marriott and Hilton, officials said. Instead, consumers pressing 1 were directed to a discount-travel call center not affiliated with the brand-name firms, according to the agency.

Federal 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.

An attempt to reach Abramovich for comment was not successful. He has 30 days to respond to the FCC’s proposed action.

He has formed more than a dozen companies in Florida including Marketing Strategy Leaders on Bayshore Drive in Miami, records show. Many were dissolved within a year.

Documents say his “mass robocalling campaigns violate the Communications Act, and his misrepresentations in the prerecorded messages constitute criminal wire fraud.”

 

 

Ringless robocall messages stir ire as other Florida calls halted

The dust had barely settled on one crackdown on Florida-based robocalls before another controversy popped up: automated voice messages left on phones that never rang, some involving a Florida car dealer.

Officials in New York, Massachusetts  and Kentucky said this week they want the Federal Communications Commission to stop a new twist: companies leaving ringless robocall messages.

The phone never rings and consumers don’t realize until they see they have a voice message that an advertiser has planted something on their phone.

That can defeat many call-blocking apps, impose unwanted costs on people with limited cell plans, mailbox limits or charges for checking messages, and add to a flood of automated calls that averaged 2.4 billion a month in 2016, officials said. It can even represent a way around “Do Not Call” lists, they said.

“Granting companies a free pass to push ringless voice messages to consumers’ phones just adds more robocalls and causes significant financial harm to those who are charged for checking their messages,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.

A telemarketing company called All About The Message has argued before federal regulators that ringless messages deserve a place in the market, The New York Times reported.

“The act of depositing a voice mail on a voice mail service without dialing a consumers’ cellular telephone line does not result in the kind of disruptions to a consumer’s life — dead air calls, calls interrupting consumers at inconvenient times or delivery charges to consumers,” the company wrote.

An early customer of the service has been a Naples, Fla. car dealer that was the subject of a lawsuit by an annoyed consumer, The Times reported.

Another advocate of ringless messages: The Republic National Committee, which has argued it should be protected as free political speech.

Meanwhile, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Federal Trade Commission said this week they obtained permanent injunctions halting purveyors of more traditional robocalling — an Orlando-based operation hawking what they called “worthless” services to reduce credit card interest.

“This massive robocall operation bombarded consumers with millions of unwanted calls and misled victims into purchasing ineffective financial services — but thanks to our joint investigation, this scheme has been permanently shut down,” Bondi said Monday.

Permanently barred from telemarketing and related services were All Us Marketing LLC, formerly known as Payless Solutions LLC; and Global Marketing Enterprises Inc., formerly known as Pay Less Solutions Inc.

Also subject to the court order: Global One Financial Services LLC; Your #1 Savings LLC; Ovadaa LLC; Royal Holdings Of America LLC; GRR Financial Services LLC; Auto Guardian USA, LLC, Premier Marketing International LLC; Gary Rodriguez; Marbel Rodriguez; Carmen Williams; Jonathan Paulino; Fairiborz Fard; Shirin Imani; Alex Serna, Christian Serna, and Kimberly Coarse.

Boynton Beach operation blasted billions of illegal robocalls, FTC says

Just hang up if you receive a robocall.
The FTC has taken action against an alleged robocall operation based in Boynton Beach.

The Federal Trade Commission Friday announced a crackdown on two massive robocall telemarketing operations, one of which was headquartered in Boynton Beach.

Both have been blasting robocalls to billions of  consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry since at least 2012, the FTC said.

The FTC complaint was filed this week in federal court in West Palm Beach  against Justin Ramsey, Brian Offner, Christopher Herghelegiu and their companies Data Guri LLC, Tailbone Security LLC, both based in Boynton Beach, Leading Apex in Pennsylvania and Prime Marketing, Boca Raton.

The other case was filed against Aaron Michael Jones in Orange County, California.

The two ringleaders of the operations— Ramsey, who lived in Boca Raton, according to state records,  and  Jones—have previously been sued by state attorneys general for telemarketing violations and the FTC’s litigation against them continues, the FTC said.

According to the FTC’s complaint in the Ramsey action, the defendants illegally blasted millions of robocalls in 2012 and 2013 to consumers on the DNC Registry selling home security systems or generating leads for home security installation companies. In just one week in July 2012, the defendants allegedly made more than 1.3 million illegal calls to consumers nationwide, 80 percent of which were to numbers listed on the DNC Registry.

The FTC alleges that Ramsey continues to violate the Telemarketing Sales Rule.  For example, in April and May of 2016, the FTC alleges that he and his company, Prime Marketing LLC, placed at least 800,000 calls to numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry.

Two of Ramsey’s former business partners and their three companies have agreed to settle. In addition to the bans on robocalling, DNC and TSR violations, the court orders impose a $1.4 million judgment, which is suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay. The full amount will become due if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

Many of the defendants in the two cases, FTC v. Justin Ramsey and FTC v. Aaron Michael Jones, have agreed to court orders that permanently ban them from making robocalls, making any calls to numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry, violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule and/or assisting others in doing so. The settling defendants also will pay the Commission a total of more than $500,000.

“The law is clear about robocalls — if a telemarketer doesn’t have consumers’ written permission, it’s illegal to make these calls,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC will continue working hard to put a stop to telemarketers who ignore the law.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IRS imposter scam reports to BBB drop, but could easily surge again

Call centers in India where a tax scam was based was shut down, but such centers often re-open in a new location.
Call centers in India where a tax scam was based was shut down, but such centers often re-open in a new location.

Reports to the Better Business Bureau from victims of the “IRS tax scam”  have dropped dramatically since police raided nine call centers in Mumbai, India earlier last month, the BBB said Monday.

The scam involves robo callers or actual people who call victims and pretend they are with the IRS. They threaten their targets with financial penalties, lawsuits, and even arrest if they don’t pay the back taxes they supposedly owe.

Listen to IRS imposter scam robocall that threatens a lawsuit

The tax scam has accounted for about one in four reports to BBB’s Scam Tracker in its first year of operation. But since the raid, there has been a 95 percent decline in new reports. In a typical week, BBB Scam Trackers receives approximately 200 reports on tax scams. Now it’s about 11 a week.

Of the 770 employees working at the Mumbai call center when the midnight raid was conducted, 70 people were charged with fraud and other crimes, according to news reports, and the rest are under investigation.

Emma Fletcher, manager of BBB Scam Tracker warns that scammers are opportunists.

“Hopefully, this crew won’t be stealing from anyone again for a long while. But we will be keeping an eye on incoming scam reports so we can alert consumes what the ‘next big thing’ in scams turns out to be,” Fletcher said.

Often, scammers who are shut down re-open in another location under a different name.

Police in India said the callers were trained to speak with an American accent. The call centers were bringing in $150,000 a day over the last year. The victims’ would transfer their money to U.S. bank accounts before it was sent to India.

Law enforcement officials in India reported that the call center owners escaped, and that that they were believed to be working with accomplices in the U.S.

 

 

 

Robocalls, spoofing: Once nuisance, now ‘plague,’ industry group says

What was once a nuisance has become a plague, a phone industry group admits about automated calls and deceptive identifying numbers like those examined by The Palm Beach Post.

Robocalls  and other kinds of annoying telemarketing calls are currently the number one source of consumer complaints to federal regulators. Estimates say robocalls are coming in at a stunning 2.4 billion per month in 2016, a Robocall Strike Force report says.

robot-handThe strike force, which includes representatives from more than 30 communications companies from AT&T to Verizon, represents one of several efforts to take “decisive and coordinated action to abate robocall proliferation,” said Susan Miller, president of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions.

One initiative: Find better ways to combat “spoofing,” which makes it appear calls come from a number different from the one the caller is actually using.

Consumer groups have been pushing companies to do something. As this blog reported, last year Consumers Union launched its End Robocalls campaign calling on the phone companies to take action.