“Catch and Release” Game with Robocallers

Few consumers have escaped the electronic sewage from telephone robocallers and marketer calls that violate our “do not call” registrations (DNCR).  These malicious marketers waste consumer resources while riding upon automatic dialers and caller ID spoofing software.  Those technologies help criminals flush high volumes of unsolicited calls onto innocent consumers.  The calls waste consumers’ time, potentially add cost to our mobile phone bills, and can cause financial woes for consumers who fall for the scams pitched in the calls.

The volume of robocalls is reaching crisis proportions.  Incoming spam calls leaped from “3.7 percent of total calls in 2017 to more than 29 percent this year, [and are projected to be] 45 percent by early 2019.”

For some communities, the scammers increase their odds of being taken seriously when they claim to be from an agency that can instill fear – e.g. calls into the Chinese-American community while claiming to be from the Chinese embassy.  Other scammers make threats claiming to be from the IRS, and some claim to be from a bank or insurance company on a mission to protect the victim.  In reality the scammers push for something the victim has not asked for and probably will regret agreeing to.

Once in a while, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hits a robocaller jackpot.  In September 2018, the FCC “imposed an $82 million fine against a telemarketer who made more than 21 million unsolicited calls to consumers to try to sell health insurance and generate leads”.  The robocalls were made with a spoofed originating number (aka callerID).

In May 2018, the FCC fined a Florida scammer $120 million for placing 100 million robocalls to trick consumers with “exclusive” vacation deals.  The obvious problem with regulators’ enforcement actions involving high dollar fines is that help from bankruptcy courts will allow scammers will slither away from the justified penalty.

Consumers are not happy with fines being waived merely because perpetrators claim they cannot afford to pay the fine.  Many consumers would accept perpetrators sitting in prison working down the fine at a pace of $1 million per year.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) operates the DNCR and prosecutes violators.  The DNCR is intended to protect registered consumers from calls by businesses lacking an existing business relationship or the phone owner’s explicit written permission.  Exemptions apply to informational calls from pharmacies, schools and politicians.

In March 2018, the FTC prosecuted a founder of Alliance Security Inc. and the telemarketers it authorized for calling millions of consumers whose numbers are on the DNCR. Two of the telemarketers violating the DNCR rules are Defend America, LLC and Power Marketing Promotions, LLC.  They faced a “civil penalty of $3,293,512, which the FTC suspended based on inability to pay.”  In other words, it failed to collect the full $3.3 million.

The FTC fell for a similar “too poor to pay” assertion in 2014, when the predecessor of Alliance evaded paying the fine for DNCR violations.  In 2014, a court ordered a “$3.4 million penalty judgment against the defendants, with all but $320,700 suspended due to their inability to pay.”  Failure to collect the full $3.4 million, amounts to tossing taxpayer money away. The FTC needs to be schooled on how criminals hide assets and made aware that there is too much profit in these crimes to expect that a self-righteous sermon will prevent criminals from victimizing consumers and lying about net worth.  The prosecution of these Alliance perps has been “catch and release” – an exercise in futility.

Verizon,  T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T offer services that triage inbound calls to reveal or block likely scam calls. The carrier’s services are helpful, but some are far from perfect. We would prefer to avoid robocallers of any kind because the calls are annoying disruptions, worthless to us. Perhaps more prosecutions where the full fine is collected will alter the behavior of robocallers and DNCR violators.

Demonstrably, “catch and release” does not work.

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