FTC smacks down robocallers, but the penalties don’t match their heinous crimes

The fight against the latest avalanche of robocallers is just getting started, and the wheel of justice turns slowly, but the FTC just took down a handful of major operations responsible for billions of unwanted calls, some of them adding additional fraud to the mix. The money coming out of the cases is surprisingly small, however — but there’s a reason for that.

In an announcement yesterday, the FTC said it had taken down four operations: NetDotSolutions, which did all kinds of marketing with a custom mass dialing platform; Higher Goals Marketing, which promised fake debt relief; Pointbreak Media, which threatened to delist companies from Google unless they paid; Veterans of America, AKA Saving Our Soldiers, AKA Act of Valor, whose creator Travis Deloy Peterson deserves a special place in hell for scamming people trying to donate vehicles to vets.

Together they accounted for some two billion calls, which in the context of the five billion made every month may seem to be a drop in the bucket, but at this point even a slight reduction is welcome.

What is less heartening is the scale of the penalties. Although the cases resulted in judgments totaling some 24 million dollars, the actual amount the scammers will end up paying will end up closer to $3-4 million. One scammer whose judgments totaled more than $5 million will be suspended when he pays just $18,332 — and whatever comes from the sale of his shiny new Mercedes.

I talked with an FTC spokesperson about why this is the case. They explained that the judgment amount is essentially a ceiling defined by how much consumer harm was done, but most times the defendants have nowhere near that much available as money or assets. You can only get as much as they have, and sometimes that’s not a lot.

Especially in Florida, they went on, where the Homestead rule means that houses can’t be seized in these proceedings — meaning a robocall scammer based in the state could make 10 million bucks, drop it all on a house, and then declare they have no assets when the FTC or whoever comes knocking. This seems likely to be the case with Mr “I only have 18 grand and a 2017 Mercedes CLS” above, who is indeed a Floridian.

The FTC goes to great lengths to investigate and enumerate a defendant’s assets, but they can’t seize what isn’t there. In the case of a large company like Dish, a massive judgment like last year’s $180 million one may end up being paid in full — but individuals and small, fly-by-night businesses are considerably harder to pin down.

Even so, the agency collects quite a bit of cash to return to affected consumers, which should happen with the money here as well. You won’t see a dime just for getting annoyed by calls, though — you’d need to show that it was one of these companies and that they defrauded you, or attempted to.

More importantly, the people and companies in question are immediately shut down and the people involved forbidden from doing anything like this again. Consumer relief is the FTC’s goal, and if they chose to litigate, the case could be drawn out for years, all while the company and call network continues to operate or develops layers of insulation against the law.

You can read the full release and order documents at the FTC’s site — but be warned it may make you angry to hear about these slimeballs living the high life.