It’s not the sort of language you see every day in the footnote of a government document: “IF I EVER GET A CALL LIKE THAT AGAIN, I WILL CONTACT THE FCC AND I WILL OPEN THE GATES OF HELL ON TRIP ADVISORS. NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER CALL ME LIKE THAT AGAIN. EVER.”
But there it is, Footnote #15 in the 14-page citation and order issued June 22 by the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau here in Washington. Oh, the Gates of Hell were opened all right. But not on TripAdvisor, rather on a Florida man named Adrian Abramovich.
If you’ve been bothered by robo-calls at home or on your cellphone, you will cheer the FCC’s action against Abramovich. There’s a good chance that the calls that interrupted your dinner, woke you from your nap, or distracted you while you were driving were his. What’s especially galling about Abramovich’s calls is that, according to the FCC, they were “spoofed”: configured in such a way that they showed up on caller ID as if they were coming from someone in the neighborhood.
At a time when it seems impossible to catch these telephonic scofflaws — who range from unwanted marketers like Abramovich to scammers who claim to be handing out government grants — the FCC has scored a rare victory.
What did this have to do with TripAdvisor, the travel-review website? I’ll get to that, but first allow me to explain how Abramovich came to the FCC’s attention. It all starts with a Springfield, Va.-based company called Spok, which provides paging services to hospitals, nurses, doctors and first responders.
Yes, some people still use pagers — they are robust in an emergency — and legitimate telemarketers are meant to scrub pager numbers from their phone lists.
But in 2015, and again last fall, folks at Spok noticed that a rise in robo-calls was swamping their system. Pagers can’t listen to messages, but Spok technicians bridged into the calls, which invited recipients to press 1 to hear more about an “exclusive” vacation deal supposedly offered by TripAdvisor, Marriott, Expedia or Hilton.
“To an individual consumer, robo-calls are a nuisance,” said Tom Saine, Spok’s chief information officer. “What this does for us is it consumes the capacity of our inbound trunks, reducing the ability of people to call into the paging network.”
You can’t page a doctor to tell her she’s needed in an emergency room if her pager is clogged with a robo-call.
Spok notified the FCC, which started trying to track down the culprit.
In the past, FCC lawyers had to issue up to a dozen subpoenas to unpack the daisy chain of phone companies that handle calls.
This time around, cooperative agreements with various carriers had been put in place to streamline the process.
The FCC alleges that at the end of the trail was Abramovich.
Around the same time, FCC investigators heard from TripAdvisor. Consumers were complaining that they’d been robo-called by the company, sending irate messages like the one I quoted above. When people pressed “1,” they were connected to operators at call centers in Mexico who tried to sell them vacation packages, usually involving everybody’s favorite waste of time: timeshare presentations.
TripAdvisor had traced the robo-calls to Abramovich.
The FCC estimates that during the last three months of 2016, Abramovich or the companies he controlled made 96 million spoofed robo-calls. Investigators verified 80,000 specific calls and used that number to arrive at a proposed fine for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s robo-call limits and the federal wire fraud statute. It’s a whopping $120 million: $1,000 per unlawful spoofed call — that’s $80 million — plus a $40 million “upward adjustment” for the egregious number of robo-calls Abramovich allegedly made.
In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said: “Make no mistake: Mr. Abramovich appears to have been no passive party to this scam. He apparently found it profitable to send to these live operators the most vulnerable Americans — typically the elderly — to be bilked out of their hard-earned money. Many consumers spent from a few hundred up to a few thousand dollars on these ‘exclusive’ vacation packages.”
The FCC says that robo-calling is the top complaint it receives from consumers.
“I can tell you it was very satisfying for my entire organization finally getting someone,” said Tom of Spok. “It’s been a thorn in our side for a long period of time. Not only does it catch this one who did it, hopefully it puts a shot over the bow of the illegitimate people, making them think, ‘Oh, it’s not free money. There’s a risk to doing this.’ ”
Abramovich has 30 days to respond to the FCC’s order. He didn’t respond when I reached out to him. Although most of the phone numbers associated with Abramovich were out of service, I found one promising number and left messages at it. I’m guessing maybe he doesn’t like receiving unwanted calls.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.