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Coronavirus Robocalls: FTC Warns 9 Telecom Firms

Scammers use calls to profit from pandemic fears

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En español | A federal agency sent warning letters Friday to nine businesses in the U.S. and abroad suspected of helping transmit illegal robocalls — which an official assailed as “universally hated” — during the coronavirus crisis.

"Scammers — and scammy companies — are using illegal robocalls to profit from coronavirus-related fears,” an agency official said.

The Federal Trade Commission, a consumer-protection agency, sent the warning letters Friday via express mail.

Quick tips to limit robocalls: Hang up on illegal robocallers. Consider a call-blocking service or app. Report illegal robocalls to the Federal Trade Commission,

FTC demands immediate response, action

FTC staffers “have reason to believe that one or more of your customers may be involved in such illegal telemarketing campaigns,” the warning letters said.

Citing federal laws banning illegal robocalls and other unlawful telemarketing calls, the FTC demanded the nine telecom firms respond immediately to the warning letters. The federal agency asked for emailed responses and gave March 30 as the deadline.

Specifically, the businesses were told to describe the actions they are taking to ensure their services are not being used in COVID-19 robocall schemes.

Hang up on coronavirus robocallers

Addressing the public, the FTC urges people to hang up if they receive a coronavirus robocall.

"Illegal robocalls are universally hated,” according to Karen Hobbs, the FTC official who gave the advice. She is assistant director of the agency's Division of Consumer and Business Education. “Socially distance” yourself from COVID-19 robocall scams, Hobbs said. “Times of crisis bring out the best in people,” she added, “and the worst in scammers.”

5 Ways Robocallers Run Afoul of the Law

In its warning letters Friday sent to telecom providers, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) identified five potential violations of telemarketing sales law. They are:

1. Making a false or misleading statement to induce a consumer to buy something or give to a charity.

2. Misrepresenting a seller’s or telemarketer’s ties to a government agency.

3. Call “spoofing,” or giving a false or deceptive caller ID number.

4. Making a prerecorded telemarketing robocall, unless a seller has written permission from the person called.

5. Making telemarketing calls to consumers whose phone numbers are on the National Do Not Call Registry. There are limited exceptions to this last provision; for example, for automatically dialed public opinion polls and calls about school closings — even if your number is on the registry.

Though robocalls are despised by consumers, scammers persist in using them because they make money even if only a few people “take the bait,” she said.

Typically, scammers seek bank account numbers, trick people into buying gift cards for them or ask for sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers.

The nine telecom firms include two based in California and one each in Delaware, Florida, New York and Virginia. Another firm is in India, and one other is in Canada. One firm had no stated address. The warning letters, in some cases, were addressed the firms’ CEOs and attorneys.

Three coronavirus robocall schemes

The FTC provided audio recordings of three robocall scams that have surfaced:

• Small businesses have been targeted by fraudsters who purport that the businesses’ Google listings might not be seen by customers during the global health crisis.

• People have been told their Social Security will be suspended “within 24 hours” due to fraud.

• People have heard from a purported “coronavirus hotline” for a free at-home test paid for by Medicare.

Telecom firms support illegal robocalls in various ways, the FTC says. Some offer Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, which allows fraudsters to make millions of unlawful calls at relatively little cost. Other firms provide the phone numbers that scammers use when they ask people to call them back.

With its civil-enforcement powers, the FTC can penalize violators up to $43,280 for each illegal call made. In the past, bad actors also have been targeted by the Justice Department for violating either civil or criminal law.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.