The FCC’s robocaller penalties are growing as the agency tracks down and terminates their operations — this time resulting in a record $300 million forfeiture. But whether and when that money will be paid is, as always, something of an open question.
The robocaller in this case was known by a variety of names and had been scamming people since 2018, as the FCC announcement explains:
This enterprise operated a complex scheme designed to facilitate the sale of vehicle service contracts under the false and misleading claim of selling auto warranties. Two of the central players of the operation, Roy M. Cox and Aaron Michael Jones, were under lifetime bans against making telemarketing calls following lawsuits by the Federal Trade Commission and State of Texas. The multi-national enterprise did business as Sumco Panama, Virtual Telecom, Davis Telecom, Geist Telecom, Fugle Telecom, Tech Direct, Mobi Telecom, and Posting Express.
Having identified the particulars of the long-running scheme, which used the promise of selling auto warranties to collect personal information from people. As if the fake warranty wasn’t enough, the calls also exhibited the standard robocall characteristics of failing to identify the caller, failing to respect call consent laws (like the Do Not Call list), failing to provide a call-back number, and spoofing the area code.
Chances are you received at least one of these calls — the companies placed at least five billion of them. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel got a few herself, she mentioned in her accompanying remarks.
“Armed with the facts [the FCC] gave phone companies permission to cut off this traffic before going one step further and directing them to block it outright. We got results. Following our action, the number of auto warranty calls fell by 99 percent,” she wrote.
This effective and quick (at least, quick once they identified the culprits) action is due to various improvements to the FCC robocall enforcement mechanisms over the years. They’ve also established agreements with nearly all the Attorneys General in the U.S. so that they can coordinate with local law enforcement. But one thing they are still lacking is the ability to effectively hammer these malicious actors with proper fines.
The FCC is limited to investigating, taking counter-actions (like asking phone companies to stop carrying certain callers), and documenting the extent of the alleged criminal activity. But their recommendation of a $300 million fine must be evaluated and prosecuted by the Justice Department.
“What happens next?” writes Rosenworcel. “Under the law we will refer this Forfeiture Order to the Department of Justice to collect payment. I hope, however, that Congress will consider giving the FCC authority to go to court and collect these fines ourselves.”
Justice, like most federal agencies, is swamped; it may be a long time before anyone attempts to collect, and by the time they do, the robocallers will likely have covered their tracks or sequestered their earnings in forfeiture-proof vehicles. A few years ago I wrote about how these fines often end up largely unpaid or drastically reduced due to loopholes and a lack of resources on the enforcers’ side. Florida is a popular refuge for scammers due, among other things, to laws that shield certain property from being seized.
Today’s operation is described as being “transnational,” which is not elaborated upon but strongly suggests even greater difficulties in tracking down and squeezing the money out of those responsible.
Though it may play out like a game of whack-a-mole, if the FCC were not doing their part it’s likely our phones would be blowing up non-stop. “We know the scam artists behind these calls are relentless,” said Rosenworcel, “but we are coming for them, and won’t stop until we get this junk off the line.”