Uncle Sam launches big new attack on robocallers in the U.S. and abroad

Dennis Peng profile image August 17, 2023 | 5 min read

In July, the Federal Trade Commission announced its latest effort to stop illegal robocalls—Operation Stop Scam Calls (OSSC). So what makes this program any different from the other federal attempts to keep fraudsters from ringing our phones and stealing our money?

For one, Operation Stop Scam Calls has a huge army. Namely the attorneys general from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as more than 100 federal and state law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Secondly, they’re widening their net. They are going after companies that trick consumers into providing personal information and “consenting” to receive robocalls, and then sell this info to telemarketers. This practice is illegal because the FTC Telemarketing Sales Rule requires robocallers to obtain consent directly from those they call. They can’t job this out to a vendor.

And last, but not least, OSSC is going after communications service providers who turn a blind eye to customers operating unlawful call centers set up specifically to bilk anyone who answers. After all, the fraudsters can’t do their dirty business without phone service.

Crackdown on big offenders

Operation Stop Scam Calls partners have been busy working behind the scenes. So, on July 18, they came charging out of the gate with quite the fanfare—five major lawsuits and more than 180 enforcement actions and initiatives.

On behalf of the FTC, the DOJ filed five lawsuits in courts across the country. Let’s take a peek at the complaints against:

Fluent, LLC, and four other LLCs: The DOJ claims the defendants operated a massive “consent farm” enterprise that sold over 620 million marketing leads in 2018 and 2019, generating $93.4 million in revenue. How did they get so many leads? They lured consumers with bait like $1,000 Walmart gift cards and UPS job interviews to get them to fill out personal information on websites. Using these tricks, Fluent obtained consumer “consents” to receive robocalls and other marketing solicitations. The proposed order asks that Fluent, based in New York City, pay a $2.5 million civil penalty.

Viceroy Media Solutions, LLC: It seems that California-based Viceroy lifted a page from Fluent’s playbook by tricking consumers into entering personal information in exchange for local job listings on scam websites. Oh, and consumers’ “consent” to receive telemarketing robocalls. These leads were sold to telemarketing clients. The proposed court order imposes a $913,636 civil penalty, which will be partially suspended based on Viceroy’s inability to pay.

Yodel Technologies, LLC: This company, based in Palm Harbor, Florida, is alleged to have initiated 1.4 billion calls between January 2018 and May 2021, many of which were to U.S. consumers on the Do Not Call Registry. That means they were being called despite not consenting to marketing calls. Most of the calls used soundboard technology that allows call center agents to play prerecorded audio clips in response to callers’ statements or questions. This makes them sound more authentic than your garden-variety robocall. And many of Yodel’s calls went to phone numbers that were harvested from lead-generation websites. Fourteen million calls were made to leads from Viceroy Media—hmm, why does that name ring a bell? The proposed court order imposes a $1 million civil penalty, that will be partially suspended after they cough up $400,000.

Solar Xchange LLC: This New Jersey-based company is in hot water for making abusive telemarketing calls on behalf of Vision Solar, a company that sells solar panels. The telemarketers allegedly claimed to be affiliated with a utility or government agency and misrepresented the amount of money Arizona homeowners could expect to save if they installed the solar panels. The proposed order in this case imposes a partially suspended civil penalty of $13.8 million.

Hello Hello Miami, LLC: This Miami, Florida-based company, is a communications service provider that was the point of entry for at least 10 foreign telemarketers that flooded U.S. consumers with tens of millions of illegal calls that allegedly came from Amazon. They didn’t. Despite warnings that they were facilitating this traffic, they allowed the calls to continue. The plaintiffs are demanding a trial by jury.

While we wait for the courts to decide on these cases, let’s celebrate some wins. As of July 2023, the FTC has collected more than $394 million from court orders in 167 cases against illegal robocallers and Do Not Call violators. Even better—much of that money was used to refund those who were scammed.

Other FTC initiatives and allies

It takes a concerted effort on many fronts to tamp down the growing field of fraudsters.

In April, the FTC announced its Project Point of No Entry (Project PoNE) initiative, which has uncovered at least 24 communications service providers that routed and transmitted illegal robocalls between 2021 and 2023. Project PoNE partners first demanded the service providers cut off phone service to the robocallers and those who did not obey were subject to law enforcement actions.

But don’t think you have to wear a badge to join the forces against evil robocalling. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in an FTC press release, “Our secret weapon is consumers—whom we urge to continue reporting illicit robocalls, so we can sever these unwanted illegal robocallers’ connection once and for all.”

Can you tell the difference between a legitimate telemarketing call and a spammy robocall? More than likely, you’ve been on the receiving end of many a fraudulent robocall. If not, check out the FTC web page to hear examples of spams about auto warranties, suspicious Amazon charges, law enforcement actions against you, Apple tech support and student loan debt relief. Or read some of Ooma’s blog posts about how you can protect yourself and loved ones:

How do scammers get my phone number?

How to protect seniors from phone scams targeting the elderly

Scammers are using AI to impersonate your loved ones. Here’s what to do

How to block telemarketers, robocalls, and spammers

The savvier you become about spammers and their tactics, the easier it will be to spot and stop them before they do you any harm.