Robocall case results in record $120 million fine for Florida man

Discussing robocalls in 2017, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said Americans are “mad as hell” about them.

That doesn’t come as much of a surprise when you learn that U.S. consumers receive an estimated 2.5 billion robocalls a month.

The automated, prerecorded calls result in the FCC receiving 200,000 complaints annually, with ongoing efforts to stamp them out apparently making little headway.

This week the commission hit a Florida man with a $120 million fine for an operation that resulted in 96 million robocalls nationwide, all of which were made across a single three-month period in 2016.

The allegation against Miami-based Adrian Abramovich was originally made by the FCC in 2017. It proposed the huge financial penalty at the same time, but only finalized it this week. The FCC said it’s the largest fine it has ever imposed.

Abramovich has denied involvement, insisting he was not “the kingpin” behind the dubious enterprise.

The FCC described the three-month robocalling operation as “massive” and said it was geared toward selling timeshare packages and other travel deals to members of the public. Of particular concern was the perpetrator’s use of fake numbers to make recipients of the calls think they were coming from the local area, a practice known as “neighbor spoofing.” Consumer complaints about neighbor spoofing have more than doubled in the first few months of this year, the FCC said in a statement issued on Thursday, May 10.

The FCC also highlighted how the messages purported to be from well-known travel or hospitality firms such as Marriott, Expedia, Hilton, and TripAdvisor, with consumers encouraged to “press 1” to hear about “exclusive” vacation deals.

“Those who did were transferred to foreign call centers where live operators attempted to sell vacation packages — often involving timeshares — at destinations unrelated to the named travel or hospitality companies,” the commission said.

The neighbor spoofing and wrongful use of well-known company names made the case particularly troubling, according to the FCC. “The Truth in Caller ID Act prohibits callers from deliberately falsifying caller ID information with the intent to harm or defraud consumers or unlawfully obtain something of value,” it said in its statement.

The commission said it received “numerous” complaints not only from members of the public, but also from the likes of TripAdvisor, which itself received complaints from consumers who believed the robocalls had come from the company.

Abramovich now has to pay the fine or take the dispute to federal court.

Tricky nut to crack

In 2016, the FCC launched a “robocall task force” aimed at finding solutions to “prevent, detect, and filter” the annoying calls. More than 30 tech firms participated, but while a subsequent report outlined several ideas for dealing with the challenge, it nevertheless concluded that “there is no ubiquitous solution” for the issue.

With no end in sight for the unwanted calls, what can we do by ourselves to deal with them? The FCC offers a list of tips that include being aware that Caller ID from a “local” number may not be what it purports to be. It also tells people to reject calls from unknown numbers, and to never provide personal information to suspicious callers should you inadvertently find yourself engaged in conversation.

It also suggests periodically reviewing all of the blocking tools offered by your phone company, and to file a complaint with the FCC after receiving a nuisance call.

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