First spoofing fine leveled by FCC signals tough stance on high-volume callers

The Threat

Robocalls are commonly understood as a low-grade nuisance – an unwanted interruption of dinner or a favorite TV show. But according to the Federal Communications Commission, robocalls can actually pose a serious threat to public safety. If a robocalling campaign is large enough, it could disrupt critical phone communications – paging systems for hospitals, emergency rooms and other medical services, for example.

In late 2015, the FCC was contacted by Skop, a Virginia-based medical paging service provider, which reported widespread disruption of its emergency medical paging service by a flood of robocalls. According to Skop, the disruption threatened the safety of countless patients.

Within a few months of Skop’s call, the FCC received another complaint from well-known travel website company TripAdvisor, which was reporting a surge of consumer complaints about robocalls made under its moniker but without TripAdvisor’s knowledge or consent. Both the FCC’s and TripAdvisor’s investigations traced the Skop and TripAdvisor calls to a Florida corporation run by Adrian Abramovich. Abramovich was doing business under the names Marketing Strategy Leaders and Marketing Leaders.

The Scheme

The campaign was quite simple: Marketing Strategy Leaders or Marketing Leaders allegedly made robocalls that were spoofed to appear to be local phone numbers, thus making it more likely that consumers would answer. Once consumers answered, they were allegedly presented with a prerecorded message instructing them to “Press 1” to hear more about an exclusive vacation deal offered by well-known travel websites like TripAdvisor. The targeted individual was then routed to a call center where live operators attempted to sell them one or more discounted vacation packages, usually involving a time-share presentation. These operators were not affiliated with the well-known travel website presented to the consumer during the prerecorded message.

While the content of the calls was rather commonplace, the sheer volume of robocalls was astounding. In late 2016, in the space of only three months, Marketing Strategy Leaders made nearly 100 million calls to unsuspecting consumers. A large sample of these calls were investigated by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau and determined to be spoofed. When the dust from the investigations cleared, the FCC found itself dealing with one of the largest spoofed robocall operations ever recorded.

First Impression

On June 22, 2017, the FCC released a notice of apparent liability for forfeiture finding that Abramovich and his companies had violated the Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009, which outlaws “[causing] any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” The FCC also cited Abramovich and his companies for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and for committing wire fraud.

The proposed forfeiture against Abramovich – $120 million – was the first the FCC had levied for spoofing under the TCPA, making the case a matter of first impression for the FCC.

By its own account, the FCC tried to strike a balance in its assessment. The maximum forfeiture under the statute – up to $11,052 for each spoofing violation, or three times that amount for each day of a continuing violation, up to a statutory maximum of $1,105,241 – would have yielded an outrageous figure, given the sheer number of calls in this case.

The Takeaway

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said that the magnitude of the fine levied in this case “shows just how serious we are in stamping out the largest spoofed robocall campaign we have yet to investigate.” This case should serve as a cautionary tale to companies engaged in outbound telemarketing. The FCC has made it clear that it will not tolerate spoofing, nor will it look kindly on high-volume campaigns that could pose a threat to public safety.