Federal Agencies Maintain Focus on Robocalls

TCPA Connect

Both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have continued their push to crack down on robocalls in recent weeks, with cease and desist letters, a proposed record-setting fine, and a warning to comply with investigations or face a lawsuit.

  • In February, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced the possibility of a new requirement for callers to obtain consent before delivering a ringless voicemail, which she said “can be annoying, invasive and can lead to fraud like other robocalls[,] so it should face the same consumer protection rules.” The brief press release explained that the “Declaratory Ruling and Order responds to a petition filed by All About the Message. The petitioner asked the Commission to find that delivery of a message directly to a consumer’s cell phone voicemail is not a call protected by the TCPA. The Chairwoman’s proposed action would find ringless voicemails are, in fact, ‘calls’ that require consumers’ prior express consent, and thus deny the petition.” 
  • The FCC issued two new cease and desist letters—against Great Choice Telecom LLC, and Telecom Carrier Access, Inc.—after determining that the companies transmitted illegal robocall traffic on behalf of one or more of their clients. The carriers were instructed to investigate and “if necessary, cease transmitting such traffic immediately and take steps to prevent your network from continuing to be a source of apparently illegal robocalls.” If the companies fail to take steps to mitigate illegal traffic or respond to the FCC to document the effective measures taken to prevent customers from using the networks to make illegal calls, downstream voice service providers will be authorized to block all of the carriers’ traffic. The agency said the illegal robocall traffic was discovered as part of an investigation in conjunction with the Traceback Consortium. 
  • In the largest TCPA robocall fine ever proposed, the agency issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture featuring a $45 million fine against Interstate Brokers of America, which the FCC accused of making 514,467 unlawful robocalls without subscribers’ prior express consent or an emergency purpose to sell health insurance under the pretense that the annual enrollment period had been reopened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The calls—to both landline and wireless phones—were made after the Florida-based company purchased lists of phone numbers from third-party vendors and acquired numbers from consumers looking for health insurance online (without disclosing that, by providing contact information, robocalls would follow), the agency said. The FCC’s investigation was triggered by a report from the Industry Traceback Group, as well as consumer complaints about the prerecorded voice messages marketing insurance plans. 
  • In other robocall news, the FCC issued an order finding two voice service providers failed to achieve full implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN authentication framework and thereby lost their partial exemption from the agency’s caller ID authentication requirements. Bandwidth Inc. failed to complete all necessary network upgrades to support STIR/SHAKEN throughout its entire network, according to the order, and was still operating legacy equipment as of October 21, 2021—well after the June 30, 2021 deadline. As for Vonage, the FCC said the company’s certification reflects that it is not verifying caller ID information for all authenticated calls it receives as required. “We will not turn a blind eye to providers that have not done enough to protect consumers from spoofed robocalls,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “We will hold companies accountable if they fail to meet their commitments to protect consumers from robocalls.” Both companies were referred to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau for further investigation. 
  • To help combat illegal robocalls, the agency announced three new partnerships with state authorities. The state attorneys general of Colorado, North Carolina and Tennessee signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the FCC, while Colorado and Vermont renewed their MOUs with the agency, bringing the total of state-federal partnerships to 16. The FCC said it will continue to recruit additional states and territories with the goal of complete collaboration in the United States. “Protecting consumers from robocall and spoofing scams is an everyday challenge for local, state and federal law enforcement,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “By sharing information and closely cooperating on investigations, we can better protect consumers everywhere.” As an example of successful cooperation, the FCC cited the largest fine ever issued by the agency—$225 million—against a telemarketer who made approximately one billion illegally spoofed robocalls to sell short-term, limited-duration health plans, the result of a coordinated investigation with eight state attorney general offices. 
  • The FTC also turned its attention to robocalls, warning Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers to cooperate with robocall investigations or prepare to be sued in federal court. At the agency’s request, two VoIP service providers were ordered by California federal courts to turn over information that the FTC is seeking as part of ongoing investigations into potentially illegal robocalls. XCast Labs, Inc., allegedly failed to comply with a Civil Investigative Demand (CID), according to one order. The FTC directed XCast to produce information by the end of February 2021, but the company only produced a “small fraction” of the required information, even with a deadline extension, the agency said. The second order involved Deltracon, Inc., which the FTC said failed to turn over the information required under a separate CID. Both orders require the companies to comply with the CIDs or face contempt charges. “Companies that receive FTC Civil Investigative Demands must promptly produce all required information,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “These demands are not voluntary. Companies that don’t respond fully, or don’t respond at all, will have to answer to a federal district court judge, as these cases demonstrate.” 

Why it matters: From record-setting fines to court orders to comply with an agency CID, both the FCC and the FTC are keeping a close eye on robocalls from all angles. We expect this increased enforcement activity to continue.

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