FCC hands down $116M robocall fine, but begs for the power to hammer perps itself

Robocalls and other automated scams are an everyday occurrence for millions of Americans. But while stricter rules are coming and the FCC is about to hit one robocaller’s operation with a $116 million fine, the agency wants to step up its enforcement with the ability to take the scammers to court itself.

“This fine is big,” said FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying the fine’s announcement. “But it also calls attention to the fact that we need new rules of the game.”

The FCC, like the FTC and other agencies, has the power to define and propose fines or other financial damages, it doesn’t actually collect them itself. Instead, it hands all the paperwork over to the Justice Department, which takes it from there. One problem: The ones getting fined sometimes get away with paying only a fraction of the amount.

As we saw a few years ago with another major robocalling penalty, this one referred by the FTC, a $5 million payment was reduced to $18,332 and the proceeds from selling the scammer’s car. In 2020, Rosenworcel lamented that the FCC had issued hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fines and collected… $6,790. Part of that, she said, was because of a “refusal” by the DOJ to pursue the cases.

The FCC is investigating robocall operations, issuing cease and desist letters and coordinating a national resource sharing group with 41 state attorneys general. But ultimately it still has to go through Justice, and that’s something the agency appears to be tiring of.

“We have issued many fines just like this one. But after we do, we have to hand them over to our colleagues at the Department and Justice and hope for further action,” Rosenworcel said in her statement. “I like hope. But instead of wishing for the best, I would like the certainty of this agency being able to go to court directly and collect fines against these bad actors—each and every one of them. This will take a change in the law and we need Congress to fix that. But I think this is robocall change worth fighting for.”

Sadly, Congress is probably too at war with itself right now to pass the kind of executive-empowering legislation that would be needed here. But hopefully the FCC doesn’t have to wait too long before it can start laying down the law itself.