America’s telecommunications watchdogs have levied hefty financial penalties against illegal robocallers and demanded that bad actors repay millions to their victims. But years later, little money has been collected. Since 2015, the Federal Communications Commission has ordered violators of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a law governing telemarketing and robodialing, to pay $208.4 million. That sum includes so-called forfeiture orders in cases involving robocalling, Do Not Call Registry and telephone solicitation violations.
So far, the government has collected $6,790 of that amount, according to records obtained by The Wall Street Journal through a Freedom of Information Act request. The total amount of money secured by the Federal Trade Commission through court judgments in cases involving civil penalties for robocalls or National Do Not Call Registry-related violations, plus the sum requested for consumer redress in fraud-related cases, is $1.5 billion since 2004. It has collected $121 million of that total, said
coordinator of the agency’s Do Not Call program, or about 8%. The agency operates the National Do Not Call Registry and regulates telemarketing. “That number stands on its own. We’re proud of it; we think our enforcement program is pretty strong,” Mr. Barlow said.
An FCC spokesman said his agency lacks the authority to enforce the forfeiture orders it issues and has passed all unpaid penalties to the Justice Department, which has the power to collect the fines. Many of the spoofers and robocallers the agency tries to punish are individuals and small operations, he added, which means they are at times unable to pay the full penalties. “Fines serve to penalize bad conduct and deter future misconduct,” the FCC spokesman said. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which can settle or drop cases, declined to comment. The dearth of financial penalties collected by the U.S. government for violations of telemarketing and auto-dialing rules shows the limits the sister regulators face in putting a stop to illegal robocalls. It also shows why the threat of large fines can fail to deter bad actors. “It’s great that we have these laws; it’s great that we have public enforcement, but because there are so many calls and so many callers, the public enforcement is a joke,” said
senior counsel at consumer advocacy group National Consumer Law Center. “It doesn’t even make a dent.”
Robocalls—those pre-recorded, unwanted phone calls—are at a record high. WSJ’s Joanna Stern explains how you can fight back against them, and why it matters. Photo: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal. (Originally published June 28, 2016)
There were 26.3 billion unwanted robocalls made to U.S. mobile phones in 2018, by one measure from robocall-blocking app Hiya. Another company that offers such services, YouMail Inc., puts the number of unwanted and illegal robocalls made in the U.S. last year even higher, at nearly 48 billion.
and other large wireless carriers are currently working to implement a call-verification system by the end of the year that regulators and telecom industry executives say will help consumers identify legitimate calls. That system won’t block calls, but will signal that the caller has the right to use a given number and that it hasn’t been spoofed. The FCC and FTC say there are challenges to collecting penalties for robocall-related wrongdoing. Small illegal operations can quickly close up shop and change their names, enforcement officials say. Some are based overseas, making it difficult to identify or seize assets. Fines are “a deterrent on legitimate companies that have real assets in the U.S.,” said
a senior attorney at Squire Patton Boggs in Atlanta that advises companies on consumer class-action suits related to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. For a spam caller or overseas operator, “that’s really just pushing for Social Security numbers or bank account information—it’s less of a deterrent, because they don’t really have anything that could be collected anyway,” Mr. Delnero said.
In many FTC cases involving civil penalties, the agency secures judgments for large fines and settles for a smaller sum, contingent upon the accused person or company being transparent about their assets, Mr. Barlow said. Congress requires the agency to consider an individual’s ability to pay. In the 2017 case of a “recidivist robocaller” that placed illegal robocalls for nearly a decade, for example, two defendants faced civil penalties of $2.7 million in a California suit filed by the FTC. They were each ultimately ordered to pay $225,000 or less, if their financial disclosures were complete and accurate.
chairman of the FCC since January 2017, said in an interview on robocalls earlier this month that in the past, few financial penalties have been collected, but that he is working to change that. It is “important to send a signal to other would-be robocallers that you’re not going to be able to get away with it,” Mr. Pai said. Still, none of the $202 million demanded in what the FCC calls forfeiture orders against alleged rulebreakers during Mr. Pai’s tenure has been collected. The agency in May 2018, for example, fined a Florida-based company and its top executive $120 million for making 100 million illegal robocalls during a three-month period in 2016. Agency records as of late December indicate that no funds had been collected. Write to Sarah Krouse at firstname.lastname@example.org
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