'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.