FCC proposes record $120 million fine for man in robocall scheme

Last Updated Jun 23, 2017 11:30 AM EDT

Nearly everyone hates robocalls. Federal regulators now want to fine a Florida man an unprecedented $120 million for allegedly running a massive robocall "spoofing" scam, which allegedly made more than a million calls a day in order to peddle timeshare services and other products, according to the government.

The financial penalty – which, if approved in court, would be the biggest ever against an individual – is warranted based on the massive scope and damage caused by the illegal robocalling and phone number spoofing scam masterminded by Adrian Abramovich of Miami, the Federal Communications Commission said Thursday.

Faking local numbers that mimicked the same area code and first three digits of the victim's phone number, Abramovich's marketing companies made 96 million illegal robocalls in a mere three-month stretch, the agency said. This form of "neighbor spoofing" is believed to increase the chance that even skeptical consumers will pick up the line, believing that the robocaller is actually a friend or neighbor.

When consumers did pick up, they were often urged to press a number on their telephone keypad to hear about "exclusive" vacation deals supposedly offered by major companies such as Hilton, Marriott, TripAdvisor and Expedia. In reality, the calls directed consumers to "travel agencies" that served as front operations for a group of timeshare companies operating in Mexico. The Mexican company has not been charged, but investigations continue.

Over the course of several years, Abramovich's companies disrupted emergency services, bilked vulnerable consumers out of thousands of dollars and hurt legitimate businesses, the FCC contends.

Indeed, the agency had help in uncovering Abramovich's operation from two companies directly impacted by the scam, according to documents filed by the FCC. Spok, a Virginia-based medical paging service, contacted the FCC in 2015 when a flood of robocalls disrupted its emergency paging service. From information provided by Spok, the FCC determined that Abramovich and his companies were the source of the disruptive phone calls.

Meanwhile, TripAdvisor was deluged by consumer complaints about robocalls that the company had not initiated or authorized. After conducting an internal investigation, TripAdvisor determined that the offending calls were linked to a Mexican hotel and resort chain that had contracted with Abramovich for advertising services.

The robocalls, most of which were made to cell phones, violate a number of telecommunications laws, according to the FCC. The Truth in Caller ID Act, for instance, prohibits callers from deliberately falsifying caller ID information to disguise their identity with the intent to harm or defraud consumers.

In March, the FCC announced a crackdown on robocalls, an industry that has ballooned in recent years. Last year, Americans received about 2.4 billion robocalls every month, according to the FCC. 

The FCC subpoenaed Abramovich's call records for the three-month period from October 1, 2016, to December 31, 2016, and found that Abramovich's companies made 96,758,223 calls -- or more than a million calls a day -- during this three-month period. Reviewing a 80,000-call sample, the agency found that all the calls were spoofed, with each using a calling number that matched the area code (first three digits) and central office code (second three digits) of the called number.

A court must approve the agency's propose fine. 

Abramovich could not be reached for comment.