The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Crackdown targets robocallers that placed 1 billion calls, federal and state officials say

A call log displaying possible marketing and spam calls on a cellphone. (John Raoux/AP)

Federal and state authorities on Tuesday announced that they had targeted dozens of robocallers accused of placing an estimated 1 billion spam calls to consumers, a crackdown they said should send a signal about the government’s heightened attention to Americans harmed by such scams.

Some of the robocallers sought to deceive people into paying fees or surrendering their personal information for fraudulent services, such as lowering their credit card interest rates or providing help with health insurance, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which worked alongside state attorneys general and other local law enforcement officials.

In total, they said, their operation spanned 94 actions over the past nine months, including issuing warning letters and fines and filing charges in court. Violators ran afoul of a wide array of state and federal rules, including laws that require marketers to obtain consent before contacting consumers.

The government’s efforts come as robocalls continue to ring Americans’ phones at record rates: Scam calls made up a large share of the estimated 4.7 billion robocalls to mobile devices in May, according to YouMail, an app that helps block them. That’s more than double the amount from two years ago, an uptick that has prompted Americans to complain to the FTC at historic levels. The agency said Tuesday that it now receives about 10,000 robocall complaints per day.

Robocalls are overwhelming hospitals and patients, threatening a new kind of health crisis

“We’re all fed up with the tens of billions of illegal robocalls we get every year,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. Fighting “this scourge remains a top priority for law enforcement agencies around the nation.”

The FTC’s new actions include a case against a firm called First Choice Horizon LLC, the lead entity in what the government described as a “maze of interrelated operations” that preyed on Americans who are in financial distress, including seniors.

In those calls, the defendants are accused of offering to help people lower their credit card interest rates if they pay a fee. But those affiliated with First Choice Horizon ultimately tricked consumers into surrendering sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, the FTC said. And the defendants made their calls even to consumers who had put their numbers on the Do Not Call List, according to the complaint, which was filed in a federal court in Florida earlier this month.

Another target of the FTC’s efforts, a company called Media Mix 365, dialed millions of phone numbers on the Do Not Call registry in an attempt to “develop leads for home solar energy companies,” the agency said. In one case, the complaint said, the defendants contacted a single number more than 1,000 times in the same year.

State officials, meanwhile, took action against illegal robocalls involving pharmaceutical, credit-card and loan scams. One complaint filed in federal court by Virginia’s attorney general, for example, targeted Roanoke-based defendants who placed millions of robocalls that did not ring consumers’ phones — but did leave them voice mails — pitching car-selling services.

The announcement of the enforcement efforts comes as regulators and telecom giants face immense public pressure for failing to stem the tide of automated spam calls. The deluge of prerecorded, fraudulent messages has become more than a mere nuisance — robocalls target hospitals so often that doctors and administrators say they threaten to disrupt patient care, The Washington Post has reported.

House lawmakers unveil bipartisan anti-robocall bill

In response, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have forged ahead with bills that would amplify the government’s powers for finding and penalizing illegal robocallers. A bipartisan compromise in the House passed an early subcommittee vote Tuesday, and the Senate passed its bill almost unanimously earlier this year.

Lawmakers also have prodded the FTC and the government’s telecom agency, the Federal Communications Commission, to toughen their efforts. A bill funding both agencies in the House — expected to come before the chamber soon — faults the agencies for failing to collect on some of the record fines they’ve levied in the past. Lawmakers also cited the emerging threat to doctors and patients, urging the agencies to prioritize investigations that involve hospitals.