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On December 6, the Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced he is joining a bipartisan group of 40 state Attorneys General to stop or reduce “annoying and dangerous” robocalls. The multistate group is reviewing, through meetings with several major telecom companies, the technology the companies are pursuing to combat robocalls. According to the announcement, the working group’s goals are to (i) develop an understanding of the technology that is feasible to combat unwanted robocalls; (ii) encourage the major telecom companies to expedite a technological solution for consumers; and (iii) determine if the states should make further recommendations to the FCC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October, a group of 35 Attorneys General, including Herring, submitted reply comments to the FCC in response to a public notice seeking ways the FCC could create rules that would enable telephone service providers to block more illegal robocalls. In their comments to the FCC, the coalition encouraged the FCC to implement rules and additional reforms that go beyond the agency’s 2017 call-blocking order, which allows phone companies to proactively block illegal robocalls originating from certain types of phone numbers.
On November 6, the FCC announced that it sent letters to voice providers urging them to participate in “traceback” efforts to help the FCC identify the source of illegal spoofed robocalls. The FCC released copies of the letters that it sent to eight voice providers that are not currently assisting with the USTelecom Industry Traceback Group’s program, which seeks to trace the robocalls that pass through the voice providers’ networks to the originating provider.
In the announcement, the FCC notes that: (i) traceback efforts assist the FCC in identifying the source of illegal calls; and (ii) the FCC receives more complaints from consumers regarding unwanted calls—including scam calls that use spoofing to trick consumers—than any other subject. The FCC emphasizes that “consistent participation of all network operators is critical for helping consumers and enforcing the law.”
On October 30, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin denied a company’s motion to dismiss allegations that it violated the TCPA when it used a predictive dialer to try to collect a debt from the plaintiff. According to the opinion, the plaintiff alleged the company called him repeatedly without permission in an attempt to collect a debt using a predictive dialer. The company moved to dismiss because the plaintiff did not allege that the company used an autodialer with the ability to dial random or sequential phone numbers, which the company argued was required by the TCPA. The court found that a predictive dialer is an autodialer under the TCPA even if it does not generate random or sequential numbers. This conclusion was based on a 2003 FCC ruling, which stated that predictive dialers are autodialers “even if the device does not dial random or sequentially generated numbers.” The court further noted that the decision reached by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC—which set aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as unreasonably expansive—did not invalidate the FCC’s 2003 order. (See previous Buckley Sandler Special Alert on ACA International here.) Based on this analysis, the court concluded that the plaintiff had established the three elements necessary to allege a TCPA violation.
On October 8, a collation of 35 state Attorneys General submitted reply comments in response to a public notice seeking ways the FCC could create rules that will enable telephone service providers to block illegal robocalls. In their comments to the FCC, the coalition encourages the FCC to implement rules and additional reforms that go beyond the agency’s 2017 call-blocking order, which allows phone companies to proactively block illegal robocalls originating from certain types of phone numbers. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) “Many illegal robocallers, however, simply do not care about the law and have a more insidious agenda — casting a net of illegal robocalls to ensnare vulnerable victims in scams to steal money or sensitive, personal information,” the coalition stated. “[C]riminals are estimated to have stolen 9.5 billion dollars from consumers through phone scams in 2017.” The coalition encourages collaboration between states, federal counterparts, and the domestic and international telecommunications industry, and applauds recent progress on the implementation of frameworks such as the “Secure Telephone Identity Revisited” and “Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs” protocols that assist service providers in identifying illegally spoofed calls.
On September 26, the FCC announced that it fined a telemarketer and associated companies more than $82 million for using allegedly illegal caller ID spoofing to market and generate leads for health insurance sales in violation of the Truth in Caller ID Act (the Act). The Act prohibits telemarketers from purposefully falsifying caller ID information with the intent to harm, defraud consumers, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. The FCC alleges that the telemarketer made more than 21 million robocalls with spoofed caller ID information, which makes it difficult for consumers to register complaints and for law enforcement to track and stop the illegal calls. According to the related Forfeiture Order (FCC 18-134), the FCC rejected the telemarketer’s argument that the value he received from the calls was not “wrongfully obtained,” concluding that the calls were placed without prior consent, including contacting consumers on the Do Not Call registry, and that the telemarketer knew the tactics he used to obtain the insurance leads were unlawful. The FCC also rejected the telemarketer’s request to reduce the penalty, stating “the proposed forfeiture of $82,106,000 properly reflects the seriousness, duration, and scope of [the telemarketer]’s violations.”
On July 26, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, Andrew Smith, testified before subcommittees of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform regarding the FTC’s program to combat consumer fraud. The prepared testimony discusses the FTC’s anti-fraud program and highlights the agency’s enforcement actions against illicit companies that pose as government agents, such as the IRS, to convince consumers and small businesses to send them money. The FTC touts the steps taken to spur development of technological solutions to unlawful robocalls, including call-blocking and call-filtering products. The testimony also focuses on the FTC’s efforts to curb payment processors from assisting fraudulent actors in violation of the FTC Act. The FTC notes that the Commission has brought 25 actions against payment processors that failed to comply with requirements to ensure their systems were not being used to process fraudulent merchant transactions. The FTC emphasized that while the “overwhelming majority” of payment processors abide by the law, when certain processors do not, they cause “significant economic harm to consumers and legitimate businesses.”
On June 20, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a telecommunication company’s motion to compel arbitration and dismissed a putative class action alleging the company violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Specifically, the plaintiff brought an action against the telecommunications company for allegedly making unauthorized phone calls using prerecorded messages in an effort to reach account holders to collect unpaid bills. The company moved to compel arbitration because the plaintiff had entered into a “subscriber agreement,” which was provided to him via mail after he agreed to self-install his services, and the agreement requires arbitration of disputes. The court agreed with the company, holding that the arbitration provision of the subscriber agreement covered the dispute because the “Federal Arbitration Act does not require agreements to be signed, only written” and the plaintiff installed and used the telecommunication services, which constituted acceptance of the subscriber agreement.
On June 25, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that a national retailer’s use of an automated dialing service to contact debtors without leaving voicemail messages constitutes a violation of the state’s debt collection regulation. According to the opinion, after a consumer defaulted on the retailer’s branded debit card, the retailer began contacting the consumer more than twice a week using an automated dialing service. The retailer did not leave voice messages. In July 2015, the consumer filed suit against the retailer for violating the state debt collection regulation for calling more than two times in a seven-day period in order to collect a debt. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the retailer, holding that the automated phone calls were not “communications” under the state regulations and there was no indication the consumer answered and heard the prerecorded message more than twice a week. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the state supreme court rejected the retailer’s argument that it did not “initiate” communications because it was using an automated dialing system and also rejected the argument that the calls did not constitute “communications” because they did not convey any information if the consumer did not answer. The court unanimously held that the retailer’s arguments are contrary to the purpose of the regulation and that the “regulation applies to any attempted telephonic communication. . .in an effort to collect a debt, so long as, as here, the creditor is able to reach the debtor or to leave a voicemail message for the debtor.”
On June 6, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the FTC’s request for preliminary injunction against an individual defendant and the company he owns and manages (stipulating defendants) for allegedly violating the FTC Act by making robocalls to small business owners claiming they represented a global search engine and could guarantee top search result placements. The stipulating defendants are part of a larger group of Florida-based companies, affiliates, and representatives (defendants) identified in the FTC’s 2018 complaint. According to the FTC’s May 23 press release, the defendants—who allegedly have no relationship with the search engine—threatened to remove companies from the search engine’s results or label them as “permanently closed” unless they accepted the robocall and paid a fee to participate in the defendants’ program. The complaint also claimed that the defendants—who lost the ability to accept payments by credit card after their merchant account was closed due to high chargeback rates—allegedly “took money, usually $100, from at least 250 of their prior or existing customers’ checking accounts without those customers’ advance knowledge, consent, or authorization, and with no apparent reason or justification.”
In granting the preliminary injunction, the court found that there exists “good cause” to believe the FTC’s allegations against the stipulating defendants, and that the FTC is “likely to prevail on the merits of this action.” The injunction, among other things, blocks the stipulating defendants from continuing with their business, freezes their assets and records, and orders the appointment of a receiver to take control over those assets. A temporary restraining order was also issued against all defendants on May 8.
FTC files complaint against two operations allegedly responsible for making billions of illegal robocalls
On June 5, the FTC announced charges filed against two individuals and their related operations (defendants) for allegedly facilitating billions of robocalls to consumers across the country through a telephone dialing platform in violation of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, and the Telemarketing Sales Rule. According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the alleged misconduct—dating back to 2001—centered around the principal and owner of a group of companies that operated and developed a computer-based telephone dialing platform, and a second individual defendant and his group of call center businesses that paid for the development and use of software designed to make autodial telephone calls and deliver prerecorded messages. The FTC alleged that for many years the two individual defendants jointly owned and operated businesses that resold access to a “bundle of services”—referred to as a “one-stop-shop for illegal telemarketers”—that provided, among other things, (i) servers to host the autodialing software, as well as the physical space housing the servers; and (ii) the ability to make calls using “spoofed” caller ID numbers, which made it look as if the calls came from a consumer’s local area code. According to the FTC, this “bundle of services” became so widely used within the industry that it has been named in at least eight other FTC lawsuits centered on the facilitation of unlawful calls. Among other things, the charges against the defendants include assisting with illegal robocalls, calling with prerecorded messages, calling numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, calling with spoofed caller IDs, and abandoning calls. The FTC seeks civil monetary penalties, a permanent injunction against the defendants to prevent future violations, and reimbursement of costs for bringing the action.