During the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) March open meeting, Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced that the FCC would be increasing its efforts to combat unwanted robocalls through a host of new "anti-robocall initiatives"—a signal that combatting illegal robocall traffic will continue to be a top enforcement priority.
The extent of these initiatives and Chairwoman Rosenworcel's intentions was made clear by the FCC's issuance of the largest fine to date against Texas-based telemarketers accused of transmitting approximately 1 billion robocalls to sell short-term, low-profile provider health plans using the caller ID information of well-known health insurers. Chairwoman Rosenworcel also announced the delivery of cease-and-desist letters to six voice service providers suspected of facilitating illegal robocall traffic, and the creation of a new "Robocall Response Team" comprised of 51 FCC staff members and industry experts across six FCC bureaus and offices who will coordinate on robocall policy and enforcement moving forward.
Record FCC Fine for Spoofed Robocalls
In adopting the $225 million fine originally proposed by the FCC in June 2020, the Commission targets two individuals, John C. Spiller and Jakob A. Mears, and their respective businesses—Rising Eagle, Rising Phoenix, RPG Leads, Only Web Leads, and JSquared Telecom—who collectively transmitted at least 1 billion, mostly spoofed, robocalls across the United States from January to May 2019 under the guise of well-known health insurance companies.
Further, Spiller and Mears admitted to the USTelecom Industry Traceback Group that they knowingly made calls to individuals on the National Do-Not-Call Registry "because calls to those consumers enhanced [their] business." The individuals and their companies are also facing a civil complaint filed in the Southern District of Texas by a collection of state attorneys general asserting violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and seeking restitution of at least $500 per call for the harmed consumers. That case remains pending.
As noted above, the fine is the largest ever imposed by the FCC for violating its robocalling regulations which include, among others, the TCPA and the Truth in Caller ID Act. However, this significant penalty is not likely to be the last or the greatest that illegal robocallers face moving forward—as the 2019 Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act has substantially increased the tools and penalties at the Commission's disposal to penalize and prevent illegal robocall and caller ID spoofing violations.
Other Anti-Robocall Actions
Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel also used the $225 million fine as an impetus for further efforts to curb illegal robocalling, announcing that the FCC intends to "think more broadly and act more boldly" about the Commission's anti-robocall efforts to ensure consumers do not fall victim to illegal robocall campaigns like the one facilitated by Spiller and Mears. These efforts include:
- The delivery of cease-and-desist letters to six voice service providers that are suspected of transmitting or originating illegal robocall traffic and "consistently violated FCC guidelines on the use of autodialed and prerecorded voice message calls," and who will face having all of their call traffic blocked by downstream providers if the warned entities fail to mitigate illegal traffic within 48 hours or report back to the FCC and Traceback Consortium within 14 days of receipt.
- The launch of a Robocall Response Team tasked with coordinating and implementing the agency's anti-robocall efforts, enforcing the Commission's robocall laws, developing new policies to authenticate calls and trace back illegal robocalls, and educating providers and stakeholders about robocall mitigation efforts.
- The delivery of letters to the Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice, and National Association of State Attorneys General highlighting a renewed interest in coordinating and enforcing laws prohibiting illegal robocall scams.
Impact Moving Forward
With the FCC having already directed significant efforts in 2020 to improve illegal robocall mitigation and enforcement through the implementation of new call blocking and authentication obligations for voice service providers, it was already clear that robocall regulatory compliance would remain a major objective in 2021.
The FCC's actions during its March open meeting confirm this and signal that the Commission—along with other federal agencies and state attorneys general—will be using the TRACED Act's enforcement tools to ensure both callers and voice service providers are doing their part to mitigate and stop illegal robocall traffic at the source.