FCC Takes Action Against Political Robocallers for Dialing Cell Phones

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-03-16

FCC Takes Action Against Political Robocallers for Dialing Cell Phones

It’s no secret that political campaigns made millions of automated calls during the run-up to the 2012 elections. Many individuals received dozens of such calls every day. Being on the do-not-call list didn’t help.

Sadly, political robocalls are legal to landline phones as long as the caller is properly identified at the beginning of the call and as long as the caller doesn’t seize the line (meaning making it impossible to disconnect the call). But what’s not legal is to call cell phones, emergency phones, phones in hospitals or nursing homes or other exceptions that the FCC has outlined in its rules.

Two companies, Dialing Services LLC from Roswell, N.M., and Richard Gilmore DBA Democratic Dialing from Aurora, Colo., have been charged with making millions of prohibited robocalls during the 2012 election season. If the two companies were to be fined the full amount allowed by law, the fines would total nearly $100 billion (yes, that’s with a "B").

The robocalls that the two companies made were to cell phones in the United States. FCC rules prohibit calling cell phones without express permission from the owner of the cell phone. In addition, the caller has to state at the beginning of the call who they are, and where they can be reached. They’re also not allowed to spoof the Caller ID number.

The FCC compared the numbers that were called against commercially available lists of cell phone numbers, and in the case of Dialing Services found 4.7 million prohibited calls. The agency did the same thing with Democratic Dialing and found 1.1 million prohibited calls. FCC investigators called some of the people with the cell phone numbers that were called by the dialing services and were told, often forcefully, that the dialing companies did not have permission to call their cell phones. (The quotes in the FCC citations are graphic).

The way these citations work is that the dubious dialers are ordered to stop such calls immediately and they’re warned that if they violate the rules in any way, even by making one more prohibited call, they can be fined for that violation, and for all of the violations in the past. Dialing Services’ 4.7 million prohibited calls could be assessed at the FCC’s maximum fine of $16,000 per call. That’s more than $75 billion. Democratic Dialing would have a comparatively light fine of a mere $17.6 billion.

So does this mean that you’re going to stop getting political robocalls on your cell phone? Or does it mean that those ubiquitous calls about your car’s warranty or the company that calls itself Card Services are going to stop? Probably not.

FCC Takes Action Against Political Robocallers for Dialing Cell Phones

These robocalling companies already know that they’re operating on the far edge of the law, and they have a number of ways that they think they can avoid being caught, or if caught, then fined.

Dialing Services, for example, says in its Terms of Use that it’s up to the customer to make sure that Dialing Services obeys the law, and that the customer will pay any fines. In addition, the company has an indemnification clause that lets the company take over the defense for violating the law, and then charge you for the cost. Apparently, the FCC wasn’t impressed and filed the citations against Dialing Services and Democratic Dialing anyway.

The reason for this is that the FCC holds the party actually making the phone call responsible for ensuring the call is lawful. Even if one of the company’s customers sent a boatload of cell phone numbers over to the robocaller, it’s the robocaller’s job to make sure the calls are legal.

Another thing you’ll notice in the citations is that these companies try to fly under the radar by using a lot of company names as fronts. The FCC provides a long list. If this seems familiar, think of those cheap buses that make the run between New York and Boston and change the company name every time they’re cited for doing something illegal or after they have a serious accident. Meanwhile, passengers on these buses routinely die on the interstates because the bus company skirted the law.

Fortunately, robocalling isn’t fatal, and it doesn’t appear that the companies that the FCC cited actually called any emergency numbers during their political campaigning. But the fact is it’s against the law to call cell phones without permission.

While it’s possible that the companies may contend that they were confused by the rules since it is legal to call landlines with political calls, the fact is that the lists of wireless numbers are readily available. The companies involved clearly have the legal staffs necessary to look this stuff up. But they don’t because they’re getting paid to make calls, and until now there wasn’t much of a downside to breaking the law. Now there’s a downside.

Since the robocalls probably won’t stop even with these citations, an FCC spokesperson told eWEEK in an email that anyone who gets such a call should go to the FCC’s Complaints Website, and be able to provide the wireless number that was called, the fact that it WAS a wireless number and who their wireless carrier is. Yes, I know one call won’t make a lot of difference, but it could be the one call that puts the full force of the FCC’s citations info effect and helps balance the budget all at once.

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