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Source: United States Department of Justice

The Department of Justice has announced that an interagency working group convened by Attorney General William P. Barr released a report to Congress on efforts to stop the scourge of illegal robocalls affecting the American public. The report − composed pursuant to the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (the TRACED Act) that President Trump signed into law in January 2020 − details the working group’s extensive work to end the harm caused by illegal robocalls, especially fraudulent robocalls that disproportionately affect elderly Americans, including through legal action, regulatory efforts, and private industry collaboration.

“The Department of Justice and its partners are committed to halting unlawful robocalls,” said Attorney General William P. Barr.  “As this report illustrates, we are working hand-in-hand with our federal and state partners to successfully halt the flow of robocalls domestically and abroad.  Americans should not have to put up with annoying and abusive robocalls, and the Department will continue to work to protect the American public, and particularly American seniors, from these illegal and harassing schemes.”

The report describes enforcement actions taken by the Department of Justice, including two civil actions filed in January 2020 against U.S.-based Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) companies.  The cases alleged that two sets of defendants engaged in wire fraud schemes by knowingly serving as “gateway carriers” for fraudulent robocalls from foreign customers targeting Americans, many of whom are elderly or otherwise vulnerable.  In both cases, the federal courts issued injunctions against the defendants, prohibiting them from carrying robocalls to U.S. consumers and selling U.S. phone numbers.  In the months following the department’s action in these cases, the number of robocalls that reached U.S. consumers sharply declined.

The report also describes how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is using all of the tools at its disposal to fight illegal calls, including filing an action jointly with the Ohio Attorney General in December 2019 against VoIP service provider Globex for providing the means to make allegedly illegal robocalls.  The action resulted in a settlement that requires Globex and its U.S.-based subsidiaries to pay $1.95 million and to abide by client screening and monitoring provisions.  According to the report, since the National Do Not Call Registry began accepting registrations in 2003, the FTC has brought almost 150 enforcement actions against more than 500 companies and more than 400 individuals, and the FTC has collected over $160 million in equitable monetary relief and civil penalties.

The report further describes the actions of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to combat illegal robocalls.  The actions include enforcement of laws that prohibit spoofing activities, which occur when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to caller ID displays to disguise the caller’s identity.  FCC actions also include a June 2020 Notice of Apparent Liability proposing a forfeiture of $225,000,000 against persons allegedly responsible for making, in the first quarter of 2019 alone, approximately one billion spoofed robocalls that transmitted prerecorded messages falsely claiming affiliation with a major health insurance company. 

The report highlights how the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic greatly increased the importance of the working group’s collaboration as illegal calls bombarded consumers with bogus coronavirus-related claims.  As a result, in March 2020, the Department of Justice, the FCC, the FTC, and other members increased joint efforts to identify and halt fraudulent robocall campaigns that exploited the health crisis.

The report notes the important role played by state attorneys general, who serve the public by tracking down illegal robocallers and violators of telemarketing laws, often based on alerts from the private telecommunications industry.  The report also highlights the important role that private industry groups can play in ending unlawful practices that negatively impact the American telecommunications infrastructure.

The Department of Justice’s work to combat robocalls falls within its broader efforts to combat elder fraud schemes, including those perpetrated by transnational criminal organizations.  As part of this work, the department conducts outreach around the country to educate seniors about the various types of elder fraud schemes.  With this information, seniors and other members of the public are better empowered to protect themselves and their loved ones.

If you or someone you know is 60-years-old or older and has been a victim of financial fraud, whether through robocalls or other schemes, help is standing by at the National Elder Fraud Hotline: 1-833-FRAUD-11 (1-833-372-8311).  This hotline, managed by the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime, is staffed by experienced professionals who provide personalized support to callers by assessing the needs of the victim, and identifying relevant next steps.  Case managers will identify appropriate reporting agencies, provide information to callers to assist them in reporting, connect callers directly with appropriate agencies, and provide resources and referrals, on a case-by-case basis.  Reporting is the first step and can help authorities identify those who commit fraud and can increase the likelihood of recovering losses.  The hotline is staffed 7 days a week from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. eastern time.  English, Spanish, and other languages are available.

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