'Historic' FCC Robocall Fine For Burkman, Wohl Could Prove Hollow

from the mostly-decorative dept

We’ve noted for years that the FCC’s purported “war on robocalls” has been predominantly empty. Just a few years ago, for example, the FCC patted itself on the back for some minor rule changes that simply let wireless carriers offer robocall blocking tech by default. And quite often, the “record” fines the FCC announces to punish robocallers are never actually collected. Making matters worse, the US government usually only targets smaller scam robocallers, and not any of the major “legit” industries (like debt collectors) that utilize the same tactics as robocall scammers to harass struggling Americans they know can’t pay anyway.

You can see how effective the FCC’s “war on robocalls” has been by the amount of robocalls you’ve received. Though it ebbs and flows, the problem has grown massively since 2015, and the Robocall Index notes that 30.7 billion robocalls have been placed in 2021 so far, up from last year. That’s just the United States. This is not a war anybody could confidently claim we’re winning.

This week, the FCC made headlines again for announcing a “record” fine against partisan bullshit artists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman for making 1,141 robocalls to cellphones during the 2020 elections without gaining consumer consent. The fines come after the duo were charged with four felonies in Michigan for making misleading robocalls to area minority voters. From the FCC’s press release:

“The robocalls in this case, made on August 26 and September 14, 2020, used messages telling potential voters that, if they vote by mail, their ?personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants and be used by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts.” The Commission began its investigation following consumer complaints and concerns raised by a non-profit organization.

The FCC focused on only a thousand or so calls they could clearly prove violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which requires opt-in consumer consent before bombarding them with robocalls.

But the broader effort (spelled out in the charging docs from the four felonies facing the duo in Michigan) allegedly involved posing as a “civil rights group”, then robocalling more than 80,000 largely minority voters across several states in the lead up to the 2020 election to tell them that if they voted by mail, that data would be used by cops to enforce old warrants, exploited by debt collectors to collect outstanding debts, and used by government to mandate vaccination. Just sleazy, grotesquely racist stuff.

Granted the problem with the FCC and robocalls has traditionally been one of follow through:

“A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation found that of the $208 million in robocall fines imposed by the FCC since 2015, the agency collected just $6,790. Similarly, of the $1.5 billion in robocall fines imposed by the FTC since 2004, the agency collected just $121 million.

That?s often because spoofing robocallers are hard to find, or have already gone bankrupt by the time any litigation ends and collectors finally arrive. But it?s also because telemarketers are often able to negotiate a lower penalty, or in the case of some telecom giants like AT&T, are consistently able to wiggle their way out of paying FCC fines entirely.”

The other problem here is that this is just a proposed fine. Actually fining Wohl and Burkman requires a full commission vote to proceed. But because Biden still hasn’t appointed a third Democratic Commissioner and permanent FCC boss seven months into his term, any such vote could be thwarted by the two existing Trump loyal commissioners, Simington and Carr. Until Biden gets around to appointing a permanent FCC boss, the agency has its hands tied in terms of doing anything even remotely controversial. Which, you know, makes telecom giants pretty happy.

None of that is to say Burkman and Wohl won’t eventually face some meaningful FCC penalties once the agency is fully staffed (whenever that winds up being), just that anybody holding their breath on the scope and scale of the FCC accountability process probably… shouldn’t do that.

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Comments on “'Historic' FCC Robocall Fine For Burkman, Wohl Could Prove Hollow”

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12 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Pretty sad, considering anyone not a politician i have ever spoken to about robocalls hates them. Especially the spammy/scammy ones. That’s a lot of conservatives/Republicans in that set, and i’d wager statistical polls and such bear out the same.

When it comes to things like ISPs and telcos and robocalls, citizens suddenly are not the Republican base anymore.

DebbyS (profile) says:

Re: Pretty sad...

YouTube video posters love to jump onto trends, and one growing in popularity the last a few years involves visiting YouTube and searching for "scambaiter" (or go to browser and search "YouTube scambaiter"). There are quite a few exceptionally good baiters who show us how to waste scammers’ most valuable asset — time. Advice though: don’t try to hack into a scammers’ business network because that takes a lot of skill. I suggest the videos of Atomic Shrimp (he usually baits via email); Pappamonkey (animated); Kitboga (imitates old folks); IRLrosie (a voice actor; her Siri is astounding); and many others. Jim Browning, Deeveeaar and several others use hacking skills to (nearly) destroy scammer businesses and help victims of scammer abuse.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Pretty sad...

"Advice though: don’t try to hack into a scammers’ business network because that takes a lot of skill"

It’s also a crime. If you want to protest the actions of immoral criminals, the worst way to do it is by making yourself one. No matter how morally correct you are, you’re still on the hook for jail time.

If, however, you just want to waste their time, redirect attention away from vulnerable potential victims and hopefully expose them to real world consequences, then by all means people, please do that.

sumgai (profile) says:

Anyone here remember WATS? That was the Wide Area Telephone System, instituted to provide businesses a way to pay ahead for unlimited long distance calls. (Usually an atrocious amount.) Prior to that point in time? It was pay per call, per minute – no matter who you were.

I say, let us return to those days, with a few updates for the modern age. For starters, a new phone number that immediately jumps into the fray by making, say, 2,000 calls a month, that’s a boiler room operation. Ding! $1.00 per call, please. And absofuckin’lutely NO exceptions for politicians, NPOs, campaigns, (alleged) debt collectors, or any other such nonsense.

"Oh, but that violates a free speech right!" Jesus H. Christ on a jumped-up Pogo Stick, give me a break already. There’s nothing stating that phones are the only way to communicate with people. In fact, we had the Pony Express and the US Postal Service more than a century before we had phones, and the telegraph more than half a century apriori. Wouldn’t you know it, the advent of the phone didn’t wipe them out, either.

For those who might think (incorrectly) this is all a bit draconian, we have an example already to hand – ISPs announcing "traffic management" plans for heavy users. Works for them, eh? And as for "government interference"…. Ever hear of rationing for heavy water users, in an attempt to save some water for everyone? Or how about surcharges for electricity usage over a certain (highly artificial) amount?

(At least in my area, these utilities are owned by the citizens, and run by, you guessed it, the government. In the name of the people, of course.)

Bloof (profile) says:

They’ll just file for bankruptcy then move on to the next spectacle as there’ll always be a conservative billionaire out there willing to fund their idiocy because they provide a convenient distraction from all the rest of the evil s**t they’re up to.

The mainstream press and left wing social media will go ‘O ho ho, look at those clowns being clownish’ and they’ll distract from actual organised attacks on minority voting, getting a hell of a lot more coverage than things like polling stations in African American dominated precincts being relocated 5 miles out of town to places with no busses and no parking by republicans.

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