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/

 

 

 

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.