FCC Proposes $116 Million Fine for Toll-Free Robocall Access Stimulation Scheme

July 22, 2022 | by Andrew Regitsky

FCC Proposes $116 Million Fine for Toll-Free Robocall Access Stimulation Scheme

It never ceases to amaze me the ingenuity displayed by people attempting to take advantage of the arbitrage opportunities in switched access charges. However, the latest attempt by some opportunist to stimulate millions of toll-free robocalls and split the excess revenues with his LEC really takes the cake. Thankfully, the FCC caught on to this incredible scheme and this individual will be appropriately punished. Here are the astonishing details.

In a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (Notice), the Commission proposed a penalty of $116,156,250 against Thomas Dorsher (Dorsher), ChariTel Inc (ChariTel or Company), Ontel Inc (OnTel), and ScammerBlaster Inc (collectively, the Dorsher Entities) for willfully repeatedly engaging in conduct that violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and its own rules prohibiting pre-recorded voice message calls made without consent or an emergency purpose.

Between January 1, 2021, and March 2, 2021, Dorsher, using ChariTel, apparently made 9,763,599 prerecorded voice message calls (i.e., robocalls) to toll free numbers without first obtaining the called party’s consent, and without an emergency purpose. The prerecorded voice message calls proclaimed to be a “Public Service Announcement” warning toll free customers about the dangers of illegal robocalls and directing recipients to report robocalls to the FCC, phone companies, and the Dorsher Entities’ website. ChariTel generated income for each robocall that it placed to a toll-free number as part of a revenue sharing arrangement with its voice service provider—a practice often associated with access stimulation or traffic pumping. Dorsher apparently used the revenue from ChariTel’s toll- free robocalls to fund the operations of OnTel, which launched telephone denial of service (TDoS) attacks against other companies. TDoS attacks are highly dangerous as they disable telephone networks and can disrupt critical emergency services. Dorsher branded his toll-free robocalling and TDoS schemes as “ScammerBlaster,” which he advertised to the public on his website. This Notice proposes a forfeiture for apparent violations of the TCPA that occurred because of the Dorsher Entities’ “Public Service Announcement” robocalls to toll free numbers. (Notice, at para. 2).

The FCC used the Industry Traceback Group (ITG) and found that Dorsher signed a service agreement with Integrated Path Communications for several thousand direct inward dial (DID) telephone numbers and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service. His company ChariTel participated in Integrated Path Communications’ “port recovery credits,” the mechanism by which Integrated Path Communications pays its clients for each minute of outbound calls that the client makes to a toll-free number. ChariTel received $0.001 per minute for each call that it placed to a toll-free number, which more than covered all its costs to make its calls. Dorsher used ChariTel to transmit so-called “Public Service Announcements” to entities that had been assigned an 8YY number to inform the toll-free customers about the prevalence of illegal robocalls, and to encourage them to report illegal robo-callers to the FCC and the ScammerBlaster website.

The Commission concluded that Dorsher Entities willfully and repeatedly violated the TCPA, section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) of the Act, and section 64.1200(a)(1)(iii) of its rules by making 9,763,599 prerecorded voice message calls between January 1, 2021, and March 2, 2021, to toll-free numbers without prior express consent. It also finds that the Dorsher Entities apparently intentionally violated the law when making illegal robocalls as part of its toll-free access stimulation scheme.

The agency proposes a forfeiture in the amount of $116,156,250.

We calculate the proposed forfeiture by assessing a base forfeiture of $4,500 per each apparently unlawful robocall that we verified was made without the requisite prior express consent. The Commission verified 20,650 apparently unlawful prerecorded voice message calls to toll free numbers. We also find the Dorsher Entities’ violations to be egregious and propose to adjust upwardly the base forfeiture to $5,625 per violation. (Id., at para. 18).

However, Chairwoman Rosenworcel laments the fact that the FCC cannot directly assess the penalty.

This fine is big. But it also calls attention to the fact we need new rules of the game. We have issued many fines just like this one. But after we do, we have to hand them over to our colleagues at the Department and Justice and hope for further action. I like hope. But instead of wishing for the best, I would like the certainty of this agency being able to go to court directly and collect fines against these bad actors—each and every one of them. This will take a change in the law, and we need Congress to fix that. But I think this is robocall change worth fighting for. (Id., Statement of Jessica Rosenworcel).

This Notice is not a final action by the Commission. Dorsher will have an opportunity to respond before the matter is permanently resolved. Let’s hope he loses.