The Federal Communications Commission summoned all of its regulatory strength Thursday and dropped a record $120 million fine on a notorious robocall operator who placed nearly 100 million spoofed calls. It’s just a shame that the punishment probably won’t accomplish anything.
Adrian Abramovich of Miami, Florida was on the receiving end of the largest forfeiture ever imposed by the FCC for his three-month-long spam campaign that placed 96 million unsolicited calls that offered the unfortunate recipients “exclusive” travel deals that were likely fake.
Here’s how Abramovich’s operation worked: using open source software and auto-dialing services, he placed millions of calls to consumers using spoofed phone numbers to make the calls appear local—a practice called “neighbor spoofing.” Recipients who answered the call would hear an automated message pitching deals from well-known travel companies like Marriott, Expedia, Hilton, and TripAdvisor. If the person fell for the temptation of the automated offer, they would be transferred to a foreign call center where live operators tried to sell them on unrelated vacation packages and timeshares.
Before getting hit with the fine, Abramovich pleaded his case when he testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last month. The robocaller didn’t deny that he made millions of calls to people but argued that it wasn’t that big of a deal. According to his written testimony, 96 percent of the calls were “less than one minute”—because people hang up pretty quick on spammers—and less than two percent of people “had any meaningful interaction” with the calls.
“The majority of those calls do not bother anyone,” Abramovich said. He argued that he “no intent ... to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value,” which is weird because it seems like that was exactly what his intent was.
“Our decision sends a loud and clear message,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement announcing the record fine. “This FCC is an active cop on the beat and will throw the book at anyone who violates our spoofing and robocall rules and harms consumers.”
There probably isn’t a lot of pity to go around for Abramovich, who almost certainly will not be able to pay the forfeiture placed on him by the FCC—and rightfully so, because robocalls are damn annoying. But with the fine, the commission snagged a minnow and mounted it on the wall.
Abramovich, prolific as he was in his spam calling efforts, placed 96 million calls over the course of three months. There were 3.4 billion robocalls were placed in April 2018 alone. At the rate he was spamming folks, Abramovich would have accounted for less than one percent of the total calls placed last month.
While there was some promise that smartphones would eventually help eradicate robocalls, the problem has only gotten worse. The Federal Trade Commission reported last year that it received 4.5 million complaints about robocalls in 2017. The issue has also been the top consumer complaint received by the FCC. The hefty fine against Abramovich won’t do much to curb the calls, other than maybe scare off a few robocallers.
The government hasn’t been able to do much to address robocallers. Telecom companies including AT&T, T-Mobile, Comcast, and Verizon recently unveiled new robocall blocking technology that shows some promise for addressing the scourge to cellphone owners. If you want to take some action on your own, there are a number of apps and services, that you can try to stop some of the unsolicited calls.