Robocallers & Criminal Intent

Computers have made the commission of crimes so much easier, from stealing someone’s identity to hacking into bank accounts, and of course, with making fraudulent phone calls to vulnerable people. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission has been cracking down on the latter, called ‘robocalls,’ and last Thursday got its largest fine in history. Adrian Abramovich, from Florida, is charged with making almost 100 million robocalls in the short time period of three months.

Robocallers use technology to mimic the first six digits of someone’s telephone neighbor to call someone, which is illegal under federal law. In 2009, the Truth in Caller ID act was passed, along with the FCC’s rules which do not allow ‘spoofing’ local numbers with the intent to cause harm, defraud, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. You are more likely to pick up a phone number if you recognize it as a local one. The FCC’s enforcement bureau also notified Mr. Abramovich of him potentially violating the federal wire fraud statute, if he has devised or intended to devise a scheme to defraud, or obtain money under fraudulent pretenses using wire, radio or television communication. According to citations and available records, Mr. Abramovich is accused of the following.

Spoofing local phone numbers and calling up to millions of victims each day. Once the victim picked up the phone, they heard a pre-recorded message inducing the victim to believe a major hospitality company was calling them, among them Expedia and Marriott. They were offered a discounted trip, and once they accepted, they were then transferred to a live operator who would try to sell them timeshares in Mexico – completely unrelated to any content or companies mentioned in the pre-recorded message. The companies learned of this scheme through complaining customers and actually helped the FCC in its investigation.

Mr. Abramovich was charged with a $120 million fine, which he can appeal. Part of the reason the fine is so large is that other companies contacted the FCC and alleged that the massive amounts of calls (in one day, over 2.1 million calls) affected other communications networks, including a medical pager network, which interfered with patients receiving medical treatment in hospitals. This was in spite of Mr. Abramovich’s cooperation with the FCC, including testifying before the Senate Congressional Committee about his conduct and the availability of technology to abuse for robocalling purposes.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act was a civil law also passed by the Federal Communications Commission and intended to prevent automated dialers from making unwanted calls. The act prohibits the use of an automated dialing machine (although this provision was recently struck down as unconstitutionally broad), calling people who do not have an established business relationship with the company, failing to provide the ability to opt out of calls, and calling numbers on the National Do Not Call Register, among other acts.

In Mr. Abramovich’s Senate testimony, he asserted his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, but the FCC remains resolute about his criminal intent. Not only did Mr. Abramovich have the intent to cause harm and defraud individuals, but he actually succeeded in doing so. According to the chairman of the FCC, several elderly folks were duped into purchasing travel offers under the false pretenses of his initial recorded phone call.

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