A Florida man accused of blasting out 100 million illegal robocalls where he falsely claimed to represent companies like TripAdvisor, Marriott, Expedia, or Hilton may finally have to pay for annoying the ever-living heck out of people. The Federal Communications Commission has proposed slapping a $120 million penalty on this obnoxious operation.
According to the citation [PDF] released today by the FCC, Adrian Abramovich of Miami — through cleverly named companies like Marketing Strategy Leaders or Marketing Leaders (why do alleged scammers always have the dullest names for their associated businesses?) — violated federal law by not only repeatedly robocalling people without their consent, but also by falsely claiming affiliation with well-known travel and hospitality companies.
The FCC says that over a two year period, Abramovich made 96 million prerecorded, auto-dialed phone calls for the ostensible purpose of offering “exclusive” and “discounted” vacations and cruises from TripAdvisor or one of the other well-known companies mentioned above, even though he had no affiliation with any of those businesses.
Spoof, There It Is!
To make it more likely that people would pick up their phones, the FCC says Abramovich spoofed the outgoing numbers on these robocalls so that they would appear to be local to the recipient, as opposed to the unfamiliar — and sometimes international — numbers generally associated with scam calls.
As we’ve covered before, it’s not illegal to spoof or otherwise mask your outgoing phone number unless you’re doing so in furtherance of fraud. So you can disguise your outgoing number if you want to phone in an anonymous tip to the police, but you can’t, say, spoof your number to falsely look like you’re calling from the IRS in order to demand payment.
Back to the alleged scam at hand.
Don’t Mess With TripAdvisor
While a number of Americans were filing complaints with the FCC about these robocalls — some claiming to receive multiple calls a day — they were also griping to TripAdvisor about these calls falsely invoking the company’s brand.
A TripAdvisor investigation found that many of these calls linked back to Abramovich’s companies and their various websites set up as supposed travel-related businesses. Ultimately, TripAdvisor concluded that Abramovich was doing lead-generation for a Mexican resort chain. Anyone who fell for the automated part of his robocalls and pressed “1” for more information was apparently sent on to a telemarketer trying to unload timeshares and vacations for this chain.
“These robocall marketing scams were intrusive, annoying and – for some people – incessant,” explains TripAdvisor Senior VP Adam Medros in a statement. “Unfortunately, the scammers had been targeting the entire travel industry for quite some time. The list of brands impersonated by these fraudsters goes well beyond TripAdvisor and reads like a who’s who of well-known airlines, hoteliers and online travel agents.”
Interfering With Medical Help
Because it was apparently just dialing numbers in sequence with disregard for the recipient, the Abramovich robocall operation wasn’t just spraying out unwanted calls to your mobile phones and landlines. It was also allegedly spamming numbers used by vital medical emergency services.
A Virginia-based company called Spōk (now we’re getting too clever with the names) that offers emergency medical paging services to doctors and hospitals complained to the FCC that its network had gotten temporarily bogged down by what appeared to be robocalls being made to pager numbers. An FCC investigation ultimately traced the robocalls back to Abramovich.
The FCC points out that pager tech is not equipped to handle voice calls, so when a robocaller starts trying to call multiple numbers on that pager network at once it can disrupt or disable the service. When that service involves medical emergencies, well… that’s bad for everyone.
The citation accuses Abramovich of violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits the making of pre-recorded phone calls to any emergency telephone line, which would include the Spōk pager system. The law also generally forbids all robocalls to cellphones unless it’s either an emergency or the recipient has given their prior consent to receiving robocalls from that specific caller. Prerecorded calls to residential landlines are also heavily restricted.
Just to make it clear: Cold-calling phone numbers for the purpose of selling timeshares for a Mexican hotel chain is not an emergency, nor does it fall under any of the allowable robocall exceptions in the TCPA.
Then there’s Ye Olde Federal Wire Fraud Statute, which prohibits the use wire or radio communications for the purpose of “obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations or promises.”
The FCC argues that Abramovich “falsely represented that the called party was receiving an offer associated with a well-known, reputable travel or hospitality company.” And even though the callers who continued on with the calls were indeed able to purchase vacation packages, the FCC says that doesn’t change the fact that folks were lied to right from the beginning of the call.
“[C]onsumers were induced into thinking they had the opportunity to purchase a name-brand commodity at a discounted rate, and then were offered an unknown or significantly less valuable option instead,” writes the FCC.
Recipients of these calls weren’t the only victims of the alleged fraud, claims the Commission. TripAdvisor, Marriott and the others saw their reputations harmed as a result.
“Abramovich intended to defraud Marriott, TripAdvisor, and other companies of their goodwill,” explains the citation, noting that some recipients of these calls assumed that the popular brands were indeed connected with the robocalls and filed complaints and said they would no longer do business with these companies.