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  • Coalition of state Attorneys General encourages FCC to create rules to block illegal robocalls

    State Issues

    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.

    State Issues State Attorney General FCC Robocalls Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • FCC fines health insurance lead generator $82 million for spoofed robocalls

    Federal Issues

    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.”

    Federal Issues FCC Robocalls Lead Generation Marketing Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • FTC testifies before House subcommittees about combating consumer fraud

    Federal Issues

    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.”

    Federal Issues Payment Processors Consumer Finance Fraud Robocalls FTC FTC Act U.S. House

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  • Plaintiffs must arbitrate with telecom provider over TCPA claims

    Courts

    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.

    Courts Arbitration TCPA Robocalls Debt Collection

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  • Massachusetts high court finds retailer violated state law with robocall collection efforts

    Courts

    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.”

    Courts State Issues Automated Telephone Dialing Debt Collection Robocalls

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  • District Court grants preliminary injunction in FTC search engine suit

    Courts

    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.

    Courts FTC Robocalls Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC Act

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  • FTC files complaint against two operations allegedly responsible for making billions of illegal robocalls

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    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.

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security FTC Robocalls FTC Act Telemarketing Sales Rule Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act

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  • Court denies plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment in TCPA action, questions accuracy of report citing number of robocalls

    Courts

    On May 21, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California denied a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment against a solar company that she claimed made multiple unwanted robocalls to her cell phone, holding that questions remained about the accuracy of a report identifying the number of illegal calls the company allegedly placed. The plaintiff filed a putative class action complaint asserting that the company, in order to market products and services, violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) when it used a “predictive dialer” to contact cell phone numbers the company bought from third parties. The plaintiff further claimed that none of the alleged call recipients had provided prior express consent to receive the calls, and that an expert retained by the plaintiff found that the company had made 897,534 calls to 220,007 unique cell phones. After the class was certified, the plaintiff moved for summary judgment, requesting that class members be awarded damages available under the TCPA of $1,500, or $500 per call.

    While the court determined that there is no argument as to the plaintiff’s TCPA claim concerning whether the company made telemarketing calls (and failed to receive prior express consent), a dispute remained over whether the plaintiff had “carried its burden of demonstrating” that the high number of calls cited in the report were actually made. First, the court stated that, because the company “stipulated that the [p]laintiff’s expert in fact reached a certain conclusion, it does not follow that [the company] stipulated to the accuracy of the conclusion.” Second, the court held that, since a reasonable jury could find the report’s “conclusions are flawed for any number of reasons,” a fact issue as to the report’s accuracy remained. A settlement conference has been set for June 6.

    Courts TCPA Class Action Robocalls Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • D.C. Circuit rejects challenge to FTC’s 2016 staff letter on soundboard technology

    Courts

    On April 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismissed a challenge to a November 2016 FTC staff letter, which announced the FTC would treat calls using soundboard technology as robocalls. According to the D.C. Circuit opinion, the FTC’s 2016 staff letter rescinded a 2009 staff letter, which reached the conclusion that soundboard technology was not subject to robocall regulation. The Soundboard Association filed suit, seeking to enjoin the rescission of the 2009 letter, arguing that the 2016 staff letter violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) by issuing a legislative rule without notice and comment and that it unconstitutionally restricted speech in violation of the First Amendment. The lower court granted summary judgment for the FTC holding that the 2016 letter did not violate the First Amendment and that the letter was an interpretive rule and therefore not subject to the notice and comment requirements of the APA. Upon appeal, the D.C. Circuit vacated the lower court’s decision and dismissed the action in its entirety, holding that the 2016 letter was not a “final agency action” and therefore, the plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action under the APA.

    Courts D.C. Circuit Appellate FTC Robocalls Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security

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  • District Court dismisses First Amendment challenge to Montana’s statute banning robocalls

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On February 9, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana denied a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, which sought to overturn the State of Montana’s statutory restrictions on robocalls. Among other things, the plaintiff—a Michigan-based political consulting firm that relies on automated calls to gather data—claimed the 1991 Montana statute violated its right to free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by prohibiting automated sales and political campaign calls. However, the court ruled that the Montana statute is sufficiently narrowly tailored and is intended to preserve and protect residents’ “control over [their] property and personal choices regarding receipt of communications.” Exemptions to the ban, the court explained, can occur “if the permission of the called party is obtained by a live operator before the recorded message is delivered.” The narrow tailoring leaves “ample alternative (including all of the more traditional) channels of communication for the protected political speech.”

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Robocalls State Legislation Courts

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