It turns out that thinly disguised telemarketing calls masquerading as political surveys are frowned upon by the government—and the Federal Trade Commission is doing everything it can to end the practice once and for all.
In the latest case, the FTC settled some of its charges yesterday against a Florida-based company called Caribbean Cruise Line (CCL), as well as seven other companies that assisted it in making 12 to 15 million illegal sales calls a day between October 2011 to July 2012.
Robocalls that attempt to sell cruises and other products are illegal under the FTC's rules, so the cruise company tried to package the calls as surveys instead.
"The bottom line is that our action stops billions of abusive unwanted calls," Lois Greisman, associate director at the FTC told Motherboard. "In some ways, it's a soups to nuts case: we sued the seller, the lead generator, and also entities that assisted in the operation. We allege that their assistance was critical because they enabled others to manipulate the number and name on caller ID."
The calls generally consisted of a pre-recorded message from "John from Political Opinions of America," telling the consumer they had been "carefully selected" to participate in a 30-second research survey. At the end of the survey, they could press one to receive a cruise to the Bahamas. When they did, they were transferred to a telemarketer who tried to sell them a cruise. The craziest part is it actually worked, generating millions of dollars for CCL.
"Lots of people actually purchased the cruise…hopefully they enjoyed themselves," Greisman said. "This is what's so fascinating about robocalling: most people hate these calls. Yet a sufficient number respond to encourage robocallers to make the calls."
Greisman said because the cost of making these robocalls is incredibly low—less than a cent a minute—it is easy to turn around enough of a profit to make the campaign worthwhile.
Ultimately, CCL settled the civil penalty of $7.73 million against it for $500,000. Other companies involved also settled, including Linked Services Solutions which settled for $25,000 and Economic Strategy which settled for $2,000. The defendants have been barred from engaging in abusive telemarketing practices going forward—for example, calling consumers listed on the Do Not Call Registry, and placing illegal robocalls.
While the number of robocalls made by this company was particularly high, the case is not unprecedented. Greisman said there has been at least one instance in the past of a company making billions of calls. The FTC has made cracking down on these calls a priority, launching several campaigns to find crowd-sourced solutions. Technological advances are making the calls increasingly difficult to detect and block, but the Greisman said this case shows the FTC is serious about stopping them.
"Our goal is to encourage better and better blocking technologies," she said. "Unfortunately scammers are also innovators, so its a constant challenge, but we will not stop. Just as they develop better tools, so will we."