FCC Gets Serious About Stopping Illegal Robocalls

March 26, 2021 | by Andrew Regitsky

FCC Gets Serious About Stopping Illegal Robocalls

Just when you think you’re going to have to deal with those constant anonymous dinnertime phone calls forever, the FCC gives you faith that at least it's trying to stop them once and for all.  In the last several days the Commission has taken some actions that may make companies think twice before getting into this insidious business.

First, on March 18, 2021, the agency fined Texas-based telemarketers $225 million for transmitting approximately 1 billion robocalls, many of them illegally spoofed, to sell short-term, limited duration health insurance plans. The robocalls falsely claimed to offer health insurance plans from popular health insurance companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna.  The fine is the largest in the history of the FCC!

Spoofing is forbidden by The Truth in Caller ID Act.  It is defined as using any caller identification service in connection with any telecommunications service or Internet Protocol-enabled service to “knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.”

In this case, in September 2018, the Industry Traceback Group (Traceback Group) led by USTelecom informed the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau (Bureau) that it had traceback information for millions of robocalls containing prerecorded health insurance messages.  The Traceback Group determined that approximately 23.6 million health insurance robocalls were crossing the networks of the four largest wireless carriers each day. The Traceback Group’s experts found indications that many or possibly all the robocalls contained false caller ID information.  The Bureau launched an investigation to determine who was responsible.

It turned out that the case involved two individuals - John C. Spiller and Jakob A. Mears - doing business under the names of several companies collectively called “Rising Eagle.”  Rising Eagle made spoofed robocalls on behalf of clients that sell short-term, limited-duration health insurance plans.

The prerecorded messages purported to offer health insurance plans from well-known health insurance companies such as Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, and UnitedHealth Group.  In fact, we have confirmed that Rising Eagle had no connection with at least two of the insurance companies—Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna—and we have no evidence that Rising Eagle was connected with any of the other insurance companies mentioned.  (FCC Forfeiture Order, File No.: EB-TCD-18-00027781, released March 18, 2021, at para. 6.).

Called parties were told to press 3 to speak to a licensed agent for one of these companies to receive discounted health care.  Instead, they reached a call-center unaffiliated with those companies.  The “agent” then would attempt to sell health insurance to one of Rising Eagle’s client companies such as Health Advisors of America.  Between January and May of 2019, Rising Eagle made more than one billion of these calls using more than 60 fraudulent caller IDs!

The unsung heroes here are the companies in the Industry Traceback Group, working together to stop illegal robocalls.  According to USTelecom, it works as follows:

The origination, delivery, and termination of robocalls involves numerous voice service providers in a complex ecosystem.  Using a secure traceback portal, suspected illegal robocalls are traced systematically back through various networks until the ITG identifies the originator of the suspicious calls, where the calls entered the United States if internationally originated, and often the identity of the calling party.  Since providers only know who they received a call from and where they routed it, the ITG traces the call back from the recipient to the caller – usually routing through 4 or more, or sometimes as many as 9 or 10 service providers (or “hops”) across the globe.  (USTelecom website.)

In its second significant March 18th action against illegal robocalls, the FCC issued cease-and-desist letters to six voice providers for apparently transmitting illegal robocall traffic.  For example, in the letter to British company Icon Global the Commission states, 

We have determined that Icon Global Services, Ltd. (Icon Global) is apparently transmitting illegal robocall traffic on behalf of one or more of its clients. You should investigate and, if necessary, cease transmitting such traffic immediately and take steps to prevent your network from continuing to be a source of apparent illegal robocalls. As noted below, downstream voice service providers will be authorized to block all of Icon Global’s traffic if you do not take steps to “effectively mitigate illegal traffic within 48 hours,” or if you fail to inform the Commission and the Traceback Consortium within fourteen (14) days of this letter (March 31, 2021) of the steps you have taken to “implement effective measures” to prevent customers from using your network to make illegal calls.  (FCC Letter to Icon Global, sent March 17, 2021.).

According to Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenwocel, while the FCC’s actions here will help in the fight against robocalls, the agency needs to do more.  That is why she is creating the FCC’s Robocall Response Team.

The Robocall Response Team will consist of over 50 attorneys, economists, engineers, and analysts from the agency, including the Enforcement Bureau, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, the International Bureau, the Wireline Competition Bureau, the Office of Economics and Analytics, and the Office of General Counsel.  Many of these folks have worked on robocall issues in the past, but coordination has been case-by-case and far too scarce.  So, we are putting in place a structure that allows us to think more broadly and act more boldly.  The Robocall Response Team will meet regularly, with input directly from my office. Its first order of business? A top to bottom review of our policies, laws, and practices, to identify gaps we need to close.  (March 18, 2021 Statement of Jessica Rosenworcel.).

All-in-all, if you are sick of illegal robocalls, as much as I am, it was a good start by the Commission.