Commentary

4 Serial Robocallers Owe Money To FTC

The Federal Trade Commission this week announced settlements with four entities that it says have been responsible for billions of illegal robocalls -- defined simply as people hearing a recorded message instead of a live person when they answer their landlines or mobile phones. The busted operations pitched the likes of auto warranties, debt-relief services, home security systems, fake charities and Google search results services.

The cited violations also include calls to numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, calls with spoofed caller IDs and abandoned calls in which a computer-based telephone dialing platform hung up on consumers who answered.

“The four companies, NetDotSolutions, Higher Goals Marketing, Veterans of America and Pointbreak Media, are banned by court orders from robocalling and most telemarketing activities,” CNET’s Marrian Zhou writes

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“NetDotSolutions licensed an auto-dialing system called TelWeb to other robocallers, and a related company called World Connection operated call centers for customers who answered the automated calls. Higher Goals pitched fake debt relief services, and Veterans of America allegedly conned people into donating vehicles for a fake veterans charity,” The Verge’s Adi Robertson writes.

“All four operations named by the FTC were charged in either late  2017 or in 2018 with operating their illegal practices,” Eli Blumenthal reports for USA Today.

“cThe Federal Communications Commission has been calling on carriers to step up their game in combating robocalls. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last month said phone companies need to implement robust caller ID authentication systems by the end of this year. If they don't, the FCC will consider ‘regulatory intervention,’” CNET’s Zhou recalls.

“Consumer Reports and other advocacy groups have been calling for several years for telephone companies to develop firewalls preventing junk calls from reaching their customers, but ‘they’re not working fast enough,’ said a policy analyst,” Ron Hurtibise writes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Like a game of whack-a-mole, the benefits of enforcement efforts tend to be short-lived, said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst at Consumer Reports,” he continues.

“The incentives for engaging in illegal robocalling are so strong,” she said. “Once you shut down one operation, others just pop back up in their place.”

The companies settling this week “accounted for some two billion calls, which in the context of the five billion made every month may seem to be a drop in the bucket, but at this point even a slight reduction is welcome,” writes Devin Coldewey for TechCrunch.

“What is less heartening is the scale of the penalties. Although the cases resulted in judgments totaling some 24 million dollars, the actual amount the scammers will end up paying will end up closer to $3-4 million. One scammer whose judgments totaled more than $5 million will be suspended when he pays just $18,332 -- and whatever comes from the sale of his shiny new Mercedes.”

The FTC promises to remain vigilant.

“We have brought dozens of cases targeting illegal robocalls, and fighting unwanted calls remains one of our highest priorities,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, states  in the news release. 

In related news, “Verizon plans to make its spam detection and blocking app free for its wireless customers in the next few days. AT&T and Comcast also recently announced that they tested a new tool for identifying ‘spoofed’ calls, which have allowed robocallers to use fake numbers. Most major telecom companies plan to put the new technology to use by the end of the year,” Jackie Wattles writes for CNN Business.

“Comedian John Oliver, host of HBO's ‘Last Week Tonight,’ blasted regulators during his show earlier this month for not doing more to combat the issue. He pledged to hound the [FCC] with robocalls of his own design until they addressed the problem,” Wattles adds.

Meanwhile, an academic at the University of Texas-Arlington writes in the Wall Street Journal that “President Trump can become wildly popular going into next year’s election -- by imposing a tax. Roger Meiners, a a professor of economics and law, dubs it the Penny for Sanity Tax: a 1-cent tax on every call made. Fifty billion robocalls would cost $500 million -- a powerful incentive to stop.”

As bad as the practice is getting, and “wildly popular” as such a tariff might make Trump, I’d personally prefer to take dozens of robocalls daily.

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