FCC forces robocaller to pay nearly $10 million for spoofed calls

Photo (c) Kilito Chan - Getty Images

The agency said the perpetrator sent racist and xenophobic messages with ‘the intent to harm’

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has levied a $9,918,000 fine against  robocaller Scott Rhodes for illegally using caller ID spoofing with the “intent to cause harm.”

Rhodes’ intent was pretty egregious, too. The robocalls crossed every line possible, including racist attacks on political candidates, an apparent attempt to sway the jury in a domestic terrorism case in Charlottesville, Virginia, the use of threatening language toward a local journalist in Sandpoint, Idaho, and xenophobic and racist messages sent to residents in Brooklyn, Iowa, about the arrest of an illegal alien for the murder of a local college student.

Profiting from robocalling campaigns

The Commission also claimed that Rhodes used the robocalls to promote his own brand, The Road to Power -- which the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called “a white supremacist and anti-Semitic broadcasting outlet.” 

According to the FCC’s order, Rhodes’ efforts paid off, pushing website visits and videos watched to ten times their normal levels during his robo campaign. That level of website traffic coupled with the messages Rhodes was disseminating was concerning to the FCC because it allowed him to monetize that traffic in the future and used it to increase social influence. 

“Although Rhodes claims that he did not target media outlets, he did not contest that he received increased visibility and notoriety from his robocalling campaigns,” the Commission said.

In his response to the FCC’s allegations, Rhodes pulled out every possible argument he could find. He claimed that the FCC couldn’t prove the calls really came from him and argued that the spoofing of unassigned and non-working numbers was an expression of political speech. He even went as far as saying that the calls and their content were protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Neighbor spoofing strikes again

Rhodes employed a well-loved robo technique called “neighbor spoofing,” which allowed him to manipulate caller ID information so that the calls people received appeared to be local numbers.  

The FCC isn’t a fan of neighbor spoofing. It has fought against the ploy with the Truth in Caller ID Act and has been pushing the telephone industry to adopt a robust caller ID authentication system that catches those schemes before they show up on a person’s phone. In fact, the agency detests the technique so much that it previously fined another robocaller $120 million and proposed a $220 million fine against a Texas company for trying the same stunt.

“The law is clear: spoofed caller ID robocalls used with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or cheat recipients is unlawful. And the American people are sick and tired of it. In this instance, not only were the calls unlawful, but the caller took them to new levels of egregiousness,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “With today’s fine, we once again make clear our commitment to aggressively go after those who are unlawfully bombarding the American people with spoofed robocalls.”

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