In this 2019 episode, curious about the barrage of robocalls he himself receives, journalist Alex Palmer decides to look into how robocalls work and why they’ve become so popular. Alex discovers the case of a set of illegal robocalls that temporarily stalled a Virginia-based paging provider, disrupting the ability of hospitals to get in touch with emergency services personnel. As a result, local doctors, nurses, EMTs and firefighters were at risk of missing critical pages. Due to the resulting public safety hazard, the Federal Communications Commission made tracking down the source of these robocalls a top priority. Meanwhile, travel-review website TripAdvisor is being inundated with complaints from customers that it is soliciting them through robocalls to use its travel rewards program. But TripAdvisor isn’t making the calls and doesn’t have a rewards program. With its reputation at stake, TripAdvisor puts its top fraud experts on the case. The FCC and the travel site will eventually learn that they are on the hunt for the same man, Adrian Abramovich.
[00:00:01] Will: This week on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:04] They probably make millions of dollars a year at this because of the amount of calls that they blast out there, and uh, you know they're, they're highly successful.
[00:00:14] Will: Welcome back to AARP – The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson. I'm here as always once again with AARP's Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Frank.
[00:00:01] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. Everyone hates robocalls. We all seem to agree on that. But they just keep coming. Last year Americans were hit by almost 46 billion, that's with a "B" billion robocalls according to YouMail which tracks these things. That's 46 billion attempts to interrupt dinner or a quiet evening at home or a drive to see the kids. Believe it or not, that was down slightly from the prior year. COVID-19 impacted everything, even criminal telemarketing operations. But while calls sank to a low of only 3 billion calls for the month of April 2020, they rebounded to 4 billion a month by the end of the year, YouMail says. So unfortunately, you can expect even more of these annoying calls as life transitions back to normal after the pandemic dies down.
We're taking a short break to get ready for a new season of The Perfect Scam so that makes this a good time to revisit one of our favorite stories: Robocall King Meets the FCC. It's a great tale about Uncle Sam and some private companies teaming up to catch a notorious telemarking criminal named Adrian Abramovich. The government says his company made 100 million spoof robocalls during a single three-month period in 2016. But unlucky for him, Abramovich's operation ran into a relentless investigator at TripAdvisor who goes by the pseudonym, Fred Garvin. People call him the most cynical man you will ever meet. As Fred and TripAdvisor and the FCC chase down Abramovich, well, we're pretty sure you'll be rooting for them. Don't hang up. This time Host Will Johnson takes you on this wild ride.
[00:02:03] Will: This week on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:02:06] There are very few things that, in America that everyone can align on, but I think one is, we all hate robocalls. Every one of us.
[00:02:18] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson, joined as always by Frank Abagnale. Great to have you back on again.
[00:02:24] Frank Abagnale: Great to be back.
[00:02:25] Will: So, Frank, I'm talking about robocalls. The illegal ones. We all get them, and, and they seem to come in waves. Sometimes you hear about them in the news, and I feel like I'll get you know, a week will go by where I don't get any, and then I'll have a few days where a bunch are coming in, and then I'll hear something in the news like robocalls are on an upswing.
[00:02:42] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, absolutely, 'cause people have probably read within the last few months that they say now that 50% of all robocalls are scams, and it's probably more than that. Uh, you know, I've been doing this for 43 years, lecturing about scams, writing books about scams, articles about scams. And what I've noticed, you know, when I started talking about scams 40 plus years ago, scams were committed by writing letters, so there was a Nigerian letter; they sent out thousands of letters. The stamps on the letters were counterfeit, so it didn't really cost them anything to send the letters, but you know, they could only send so many letters, 10,000 letters, 25,000 letters, but they were only looking for 0.1% of response. If someone would respond, they were going to make a lot of money. Then we got into emails, and we all got spam and all these emails coming over with all these scams from Nigeria, but they could reach now millions of people by sending out emails, and again, only looking for that 0.1% to respond. And then, of course, they moved into robocalls because robocalls became a new technology they had access to, and they could make not millions, but billions of robocalls annually, and again, only looking for that small percentage of return where you would get a response. So as, as we always say, as technology moves along, criminals move along with it, technology breeds crime, they just find another way to use that technology to help them go, get whatever it is they're trying to do, a scam or whatever it is they're trying to perpetrate, just makes it that much easier. So robocalls are just a move along 40 years of technology to where we are today with robocalls. And if eventually robocalls go away and some new method of technology comes out to communicate with people, they'll use that in the form of communicating. The more people they can reach in the quickest amount of time, the more money they're going to make.
[00:04:32] Will: All right, let's get into this week's scam. We'll talk a lot more about illegal robocalls and what's going on right now that may be some very good news for people who are sick and tired, probably as we all are, of getting robocalls. Well this week we're going to tell you about an out of control robocall scam that was much more than a nuisance. It actually endangered lives. And it's the story of how an unlikely duo, the FCC and TripAdvisor worked together to take down the robocall king, and hit him with a $120 million fine, the largest in FCC history.
[00:05:03] (robocall) Hello. This is Jack, and I am calling you from the refund department, and this call is in regard to your refund of $399.
[00:05:12] (robocall) Hello. This is Beth calling from the underwriting department. Based on your recent payment activity and balance, you may be eligible for an interest rate reduction to as low as 1.9%.
[00:05:24] (robocall) Max Brown here with Couchworker.org. I'm calling about an open job position paying between $3000 and $6000 per month from in your home using your computer.
[00:05:34] Will: The dreaded robocall. For some of us it's more than a nuisance, it's an everyday thing. For some, even multiple times a day, and it seems like it's getting worse.
[00:05:43] They are the single biggest source of consumer complaints for both my agency, the Federal Communications Commission, as well as our sister agency, the Federal Trade Commission. And that's really remarkable because we get complaints about everything. Um, if you can, to put it in context, you know, there are more people complaining about robocalls than complain about their cable bill prices.
[00:06:06] Will: That's Kristi Thompson. She's the Chief of the Telecommunications Consumers Division at the FCC which means her job is to look out for consumers on a range of issues, and that could be not being overcharged by your cable company, and it means robocalls.
[00:06:18] Kristi Thompson: If you are feeling lately like you're being deluged with robocalls, you're, there's nothing, you're not crazy, that you are.
[00:06:25] Will: One of the reasons why robocalls are so common these days has to do with a term you might have heard about, spoofing, which just means faking the caller ID information so that scammers can hide where they're calling from. So in a lot of cases the robocalls you're getting might look very similar to your number or numbers in your neighborhood. They trick you into thinking it's someone you know, it's a call you think you should pick up.
[00:06:45] Kristi Thompson: We call that neighbor spoofing, 'cause it looks like that call is coming from your neighborhood, you know how your neighborhood has an exchange and most of your neighbors end up with kind of the same first six digits of their 10 digit phone number. The idea is that robocalls kind of pioneered that technique because they would, they could get a better response rate.
[00:07:03] Will: You might even get a call from someone complaining that you keep calling them.
[00:07:06] Kristi Thompson: But if someone calls you up and says, "Why did you call me?" and you didn't make a call, don't, don’t worry, no one is hacking into your phone line, uh it, it's just what somebody has done is they took your phone number and through a randomizer or whatever, it popped up on some call that somebody didn't want.
[00:07:21] Will: A spoof.
[00:07:22] Kristi Thompson: A spoof. That's exactly right.
[00:07:24] Will: For scammers, spoofing is a secret weapon. They can get past that first barrier getting you on the phone. Spoofing allows them to knock that barrier down. Alex Palmer is a freelance writer, and he is very interested in the world of robocalls.
[00:07:37] Alex Palmer: Last month was something like 5 billion calls, just robocalls. Um, there's another service that has predicted that by the end of this year, half of all phone traffic in the United States is going to be spam.
[00:07:49] Will: And like most Americans, Alex gets lots and lots of robocalls.
[00:07:53] Alex Palmer: Telling me that I had won some lottery, or I had student loans that need to be forgiven, or I had tax debt that the uh IRS was coming to get me for, and I just wondered, how does this work? How does, you know, how does this economy function? Why is it worth it for these people to place all these calls, and more than that, I wondered who are these people on the other end of the phone? Sometimes I would just pick up and try to see if there was a real person there, just ask them, you know, do you know that this is illegal? Do you know that this is a scam? You know, how did you get into this business? But as you might expect, the people on the other end of the line were not too eager to engage with me.
[00:08:25] Will: And as Alex Palmer starts digging into the shadowy world of robocalls, he learns that not all of them are illegal. In fact, you probably get robocalls all the time that are totally legit.
[00:08:36] Alex Palmer: Some can be annoying but still legal, like debt collectors can still call you. Your bank can still call you. Less annoyingly, if there's a snow day, your kids' school can robodial you and say, look, you know, don't come to school. If there's an emergency, they can do it.
[00:08:50] Kristi Thompson: And it depends on what the kind of call is, so for example, the rules are more open if the call is just informational. They're not trying to sell you anything, and my, my favorite examples of this, of an actual beneficial robocall is one that...
[00:09:02] Will: Yes please.
[00:09:03] Kristi Thompson: ...that I get at least once a month from my pharmacy, letting me know that my, my prescriptions are available to be picked up. I'm very much, uh, very much appreciative of those calls, because I tend to forget things, and especially prescription reminders.
[00:09:16] Will: So it can get a bit confusing, what's okay and what's not okay. But in general, if you haven't given permission to get a call, you shouldn't be getting it, in theory.
[00:09:25] Kristi Thompson: If you are trying to scam someone, that's an illegal call. You have an illegal purpose for that. You're committing fraud, um, you're, you're making an illegal robocall. If you're scamming someone, I have never met a single consumer who gave permission to anyone to be robocalled for a scam. Uh, permission is really the crux of everything. Did you have the recipient's permission to make that robocall? If you didn't, and you call a cell phone or, or your call is about, you know, of a sales kind of nature or a scam, uh you have broken the law.
[00:09:57] Will: So what the heck do we do? Stop answering our phone? That's one approach. But a lot of people who rely on their phone for work and a host of other reasons, well that doesn't really work. There are a growing number of apps available that are designed to block robocalls. We'll get into the solutions that are out there in a little bit. But now that we have an idea of how big the problem is and how they use spoofing to get to us, let's dig into the story of a robocall scam that was doing real damage to a very well-known online travel website, even causing a life threatening public safety issue.
[00:10:29] Kristi Thompson: You remember the '80s and '90s, you remember pager systems?
[00:10:32] Will: I absolutely...
[00:10:33] Kristi Thompson: Yeah, that, that was how you wanted to reach somebody if you needed to get a hold of somebody in a hurry, and it turns out there are still people who use pagers. And those pa--, and those pagers are used almost exclusively by emergency services personnel, things like doctors, uh nurses, EMTs, firemen, because a, a paging technology it, it's old, but it's extremely reliable. So, one day, I am sitting in my office and I receive a message from uh, from our public safety guys who are relaying a problem that the, you know, a major medical paging company is having, and the medical paging company that has hospitals and, and uh facilities, uh, they serve hospitals and facilities all over the country; they said, "Someone is making just so many robocalls, hitting our networks, they're making so many at the same time in our geographical area that they are actually disrupting our network."
[00:11:29] Will: So pagers are going off.
[00:11:30] Kristi Thompson: Right.
[00:11:31] Will: Because the pager's just like a phone number.
[00:11:32] Kristi Thompson: Exactly, and if you call that phone number with a robocall, the pager system doesn't know what to do with it. It's keep--, it keeps listening for that, that number, those dial tones to display the numbers on the pager, but it's getting a, a crazy prerecorded message instead about a hotel deals from, you know, Marriott or TripAdvisor.
[00:11:51] Will: More on those hotel deals in just a minute, but all of this brings up just how easy it is to set up robocalls. Scammers have technology, it's not all that hard to set up that does all the work for them.
[00:12:02] Kristi Thompson: That's kind of a hallmark of, of robocalls. You can make a, a very easily, make a million telephone calls a day if you want to using um, almost off the shelf software, dialing software that's available uh for purchase. I mean you have to know what you're doing, but you can put out a tremendous number of calls. Uh, these calls, the cheapest version of, of robocalls, they originate through VoiceOver IP, they're very cheap to do, um, VOIP has been a, a godsend for like reducing the, the cost of making long, you know, long distance calls, especially international calls, but the downside of that is that it's cheaper for malicious callers too.
[00:12:37] Will: But in this case, the robocalls are getting all these pagers and locking up the network and chaos ensues.
[00:12:42] Kristi Thompson: The hospital, you know, contacts their paging service company saying, hey, our pagers aren’t working, something's wrong here. The network is, is not good. This is a serious problem.
[00:12:52] Will: That's when the FCC steps in, trying to figure out first how to stop the calls, and then find out who's making the calls. So in the instance of this case that we're talking about today, all of a sudden doctors, medical personnel, emergency workers are getting spammed on their pagers.
[00:13:07] Kristi Thompson: That's right, and it's having a, a serious you know potential loss of life issue. If you, you can imagine a situation where, you know, a doctor is grabbing that one cup of coffee he's going to have time for in a 12-hour shift, and something goes wrong, and they need him urgently back there. If he, if that pager doesn't work, that's a potential life lost, so that's something we take extremely seriously.
[00:13:29] Will: But you'll remember that Kristi mentions the robocalls are pitching fabulous vacations, getaways, and they mentioned some major companies in the travel industry; Marriott, Expedia, Hilton, and TripAdvisor. Brad Young is Assistant General Counsel for TripAdvisor.
[00:13:43] Brad Young: TripAdvisor is the world's largest travel website, and our mission statement is that we uh, endeavor to enable you to get the most out of every single trip; plan, uh book, and then review it after you're done. So we became very famous for being the first site that enabled travelers to both write and read firsthand reviews of what hotels and restaurants really were like. And our website really empowers travelers to, you know, live those experiences to the fullest, and be confident in their decisions and have just a, a, a fantastic trip every time.
[00:14:20] Will: So you could imagine when that's your mission as a company, you're not going to be happy about robocalls that are hitting phones by the millions and using your brand without your consent. Brad Young vividly remembers the morning of October 12th, 2015, when he first heard about what was going on.
[00:14:35] Brad Young: I came into work that day and had an email from my boss indicating that his wife had actually received a robocall that uh she couldn't tell it was a robocall when she picked it up because the phone number looked like it was local, and when she picked it up, uh the recording on the other end purported to be from TripAdvisor and was offering her some sort of fantastic vacation. She, and my boss, knew that was a problem for a number of reasons, a) because we don't do any sort of uh phone calls to consumers, robocalls or humans, and b) we don't sell trips. We're the ones offering you the, you know, the great advice in making it possible for travelers to help other travelers, but we certainly don't package them together and sell them. So, we knew this was an issue, and some fraudster out there was using our brand to try and scam people out of money.
[00:15:25] Will: That was a big deal, and the fraud team at TripAdvisor knew it. Consumer complaints about the calls start pouring in.
[00:15:31] Brad Young: So at that point in time, we didn't really know what to do. Um, but it wasn't long before the second complaint came in, and this one was less helpful, right? The first one was our general counsel's wife saying, hey, this isn't right. You guys should figure this out. The second one and the third one and the fourth one were consumers that were really upset, that thought that we were harassing them on their phone with robocalls. I mean, there are very few things that, in America that everyone can align on, but I think one is, we all hate robocalls. Every one of us. And so when you start getting one and you hear a, a popular brand like TripAdvisor sounding like they're connected to it, um, all of a sudden you have someone to take your anger out on. So we started getting those angry calls.
[00:16:15] Will: Well what the scammer or scammers don't know when they decided to use TripAdvisor's brand, is that the company's actually a leader in identifying and detecting frauds.
[00:16:23] Brad Young: TripAdvisor has been um, leading the online review space and fraud detection for nearly two decades, and we have um, both computers, uh computer algorithms, and a team, a dedicated team of individuals that spend 24/7 working on identifying fraudulent content.
[00:16:50] Will: And the secret weapons for TripAdvisor in this case, is one man, one very dedicated fraud investigator; Fred Garvin.
[00:16:52] Brad Young: Fred has been uh an investigator working on uh identifying and stopping fraud for TripAdvisor for many years. Um, he's, he's really an expert in what he does. He is constantly uh iterating, evolving, and developing new methods for identifying fraud, right? These, the people that are trying to submit fake content to TripAdvisor, they learn pretty quickly that the easiest ways that they think of are going to get caught right away, so they're constantly evolving, and so Fred is one of the people that really manages to stay not just one, but probably two or three steps ahead of them at all times.
[00:17:29] Will: And like all good fraud detectives, Fred Garvin isn't actually using his real name. The writer, Alex Palmer.
[00:17:35] Alex Palmer: Yeah, so he goes by Fred Garvin professionally. It's one of several fake names he uses because you know, as you'd expect of someone who spends their day tracking down scammers and trying to put them in jail, there are people who would love to know who he really is, where he lives, and how to get to him. Um, so he uses the name Fred Garvin. It hearkens back to an old SNL skit with Dan Aykroyd.
[00:17:57] Will: When we talk to Fred, he sounds relaxed, mild-mannered.
[00:18:00] Fred Garvin: I was introduced as the most cynical person, uh that you will ever meet, and that I will excel at fraud because uh, you know, I will find the answer to any question that's put in front of me.
[00:18:12] Will: So Fred's on the case, and he starts investigating, but the process is daunting, probably overwhelming for someone who doesn't share Fred's expertise and passion.
[00:18:20] Alex Palmer: This was really collecting all the breadcrumbs, and um, I'm going to mix my analogies here, but sticking them up on the bulletin board with pieces of string. This over here, and this over here, and what's in the middle, and what's going on, right? There was a lot of that trying to figure it out, um, and having the patience to just run down all those leads which Fred did, and, and really make sense of them. That was really challenging.
[00:18:41] Fred Garvin: I used our forums to my advantage and where I looked for similar complaints of users saying, hey, you know, TripAdvisor called me offering me you know, 999 travel dollars and things. This is, is this real? Uh, and every time someone would make a post, someone would add a little bit more to it. They'd say, okay, you know, this uh, they gave me this website or this company name. And that started you know the investigation. That, that added to what we needed to be able to figure out where it was going.
[00:19:16] Will: Fred becomes intimately familiar with the scam, the robocalls, and exactly what the fraudsters are offering to anyone who picked up the phone.
[00:19:22] Fred Garvin: The, the first question they would ask you is, are you between the ages of, and it was usually somewhere between 25 and 50, or 25 and 65. And they would ask you what your annual household income was; if it was over, let's say 50,000 a year, 65,000. If you made it through those two hoops, you were then connected to an agent in a call center, normally in uh, Mexico, sometimes here in the US. It depended on the time of day when you would get those calls where they would be routed to. They would then go into a sales pitch making it sound like you had won an all-inclusive trip to Cancun, Mexico. And at the end of that presentation, they would say, "Okay, and uh, you know, normally this trip costs $4,000, but today you can have it for $999."
[00:20:13] Will: So they start by saying it's all free, but now, ten minutes into listening to the pitch, it's $1,000. What they don't tell you is that you'll need to come down for a timeshare presentation within the next 18 months, but then people who paid upfront will find out that there are blackouts dates, they can't reach the company, emails don't go through, the websites go dark.
[00:20:32] Alex Palmer: He eventually found that there was sort of this call center industry in Mexico, especially in Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula, and that all of the companies that seemed to be pitching their services through the robocalls, you know, mysteriously connected back to these, these same few IP addresses and the same, you know, few phone numbers, and uh, and servers. So we started to think, okay, there's a connection here, maybe it's these call centers in Mexico that are making these fraudulent calls using our name, using TripAdvisor's name and the names of other well-known American corporations.
[00:21:03] Will: But it was like finding a needle in a haystack talking to angry consumers and chasing IP addresses. Fred Garvin and the fraud team needed a break, something to lead them to where the calls were coming from. And in July the following year, Fred got the break he needed.
[00:21:18] Fred Garvin: I personally received one of the calls, and to me, that was like Christmas had come early. Uh, I was really excited to be able to be on the receiving end, and that allowed me to ask questions that I could get answers to that I may not be getting from other people that have posted complaints.
[00:21:36] Will: But would it be enough to track down an illegal call center, and a scammer or scammers making millions of unwanted calls and bringing in millions of dollars?
[00:21:46] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Will Johnson. I'm here, as always, once again with Frank Abagnale. Frank.
[00:21:52] Frank Abagnale: Great to be here, Will, thanks.
[00:21:53] Will: We are talking a--, about a story that has to do with illegal robocalls that went out by the millions and were hitting pagers. We're going to get back into part two of this story. Before we do, I want to bring up just the topic of I've, I've had so many conversations with people during the course of this who say, oh yeah, I got a call and I picked up, and I liked asking questions, and kind of messed around, but people are still thinking that's a good idea. And I keep saying, you know, if you listen to our show or you're being cautious, first of all, don't pick up, and if you do pick up, don't mess with the callers.
[00:22:22] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely. Don't, the longer you stay on the robocall, the more robocalls you're going to get. This is why I tell people all the time, if you do pick up and they say, "Hey, this is the IRS" or "I'm selling this program," just hang up the phone. If you start listening or you know it's a scam and you think I'll play with them, the longer you're on the phone, then you're just getting more robocalls, 'cause they're all tied to software programs that time the length of the call, the conversations, how the conversation went on the call, so the best advice always is to simply hang up. Uh, and if you think it's something legitimate, you can always call back, you can, or you can just send it to your voice recorder and hear what they have to say without picking up the phone and uh responding to that, that individual that's making that robocall. But you don't want to spend time on the phone. You know, we give away so much information. I remember, and you probably do, that if you bought a refrigerator, it came with a warranty card. And it said, fill out the warranty card and then you get a 3-year warranty on your refrigerator. Always attached to the warranty card, perforated, was a little thing that asked you questions, like what do you do for an occupation? It gave you multiple choice. Are you in this age bracket of this age and that age? Are you married? Are you single? Uh do you earn between this amount of money and that amount of money? And I used to think to myself, why would anyone answer these questions, because obviously that company is selling that data to other companies who are looking for people in that price range or that earnings or that and they, it asked you what magazines you read; sports magazines, business magazines, do you read the Wall Street Journal? Uh, why do you want anyone to know? That was years ago. We've advanced now where everything is people still asking questions, but either through emails or online or on the telephone. Again, I want to get suspicious if anyone starts immediately asking me, sir, are you between this age and this age? Are you married? Divorced? I didn't make that call. They called me. I'm not going to be giving this information to someone I don't know who's on the other end of that line. You have to keep reminding yourself that we live in the too much information world, we complain every day about people stealing our identity, then every day we tell them more about us. And I realized that my only way of helping is through things like The Perfect Scam where you can educate people, so they understand these things are going on that they never even thought go on, and then when they're faced with that, they'll say, oh, I already know about this scam. I've heard it on The Perfect Scam; I know what this guy's going to ask me or what he's trying to get out of me, and so you can help prevent and help protect yourself.
[00:24:51] Will: All right, well let's get back to our story about bad robocalls. We told you about a flood of robocalls in 2015 that went to medical pagers and tied up the network, posing a real public safety threat. So the FCC is looking into what's behind it, as is the fraud team at TripAdvisor, because the robocalls mentioned their brand in the sales pitch they offer about exclusive getaways and vacations. We also introduced you to Fred Garvin; that's the pseudonym for the TripAdvisor bloodhound who's sniffing out the scammers, trying to track down where the calls are coming from to put an end to the fraudulent sales pitches.
[00:25:23] Fred Garvin: Well the first thing I, I thought was, where am I going to start on this? Um, knowing again some of the complaints that I was seeing, they were using the same type of language in the calls. Searching on that allowed me to actually discover that these type of calls had been going on for years. They were using the same types of uh sales pitches and such, both in the US and Canada. And you know that, that was really helpful. It's, it's great when people who make these types of uh, reports online, unfortunately there's no one centralized database where they do it, you know, they, they find a page to post on and they'll put it there. And so that's, that's the thing. You have to kind of go through all the weeds and find out what pages have the best information on them. And, and go from there.
[00:26:11] Will: As Fred is digging into the calls, he gets a lucky break. He gets one of the very same robocalls he'd been chasing down himself, and it's exactly what he needs to get more information about the source of the robocalls. Fred immediately engages with the calls and the callers.
[00:26:25] Fred Garvin: Once that happened, the flow of calls continued, and I was getting them on a, almost daily basis for several weeks, and each time I was able to take that information that I received and build upon what I had, the, the theories of what I had of where they were coming from. And uh really come up with a final answer.
[00:26:45] Will: That direct call to Fred's phone helps him to connect dots. Dots he's been plotting for months on online forums and chatrooms, reading customer complaints from people who were furious about the calls, and blaming TripAdvisor for their misery. He's reached out to customers and anyone he can find who's gotten one of the calls. Alex Palmer is a freelance writer who's written about the TripAdvisor scam and the scourge of robocalls.
[00:27:07] Alex Palmer: So he started looking on blogs and forums and social media seeing if anybody else had gotten one of these phone calls, and he didn't have to look very far because on TripAdvisor's own forums, people are posting, you know incensed messages about how much they hated these robocalls and that if TripAdvisor didn't stop, they would quit the service entirely.
[00:27:26] Will: Brad Young is Assistant General Counsel at TripAdvisor, working closely with Fred and the fraud team.
[00:27:31] Brad Young: I say this uh, as lovingly as one possibly can. Fred was like a dog with a bone with this thing. I mean he, he dug in and he was dedicated to finding, rooting out who was behind this, and after you know talking to so many people that were upset and you know figuring out ways to get them to call him on his different uh, points of contact, and digging in and talking to people and learning more and more and more, we were able to start putting together a web um, of, of common points and figuring out uh where they're all leading, and that place was the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
[00:28:08] Will: Months of research and investigation are paying off. Fred and the fraud team identify what they believe to be the call center in Mexico. That sets into motion a swift round of letters to the company in Mexico and whoever is behind it to put an end to the scam and quit using the TripAdvisor brand, and that's when Fred Garvin gets his next lucky break.
[00:28:27] Fred Garvin: Our legal team here was able to send out some cease and desist orders to companies that were benefiting from these calls. And fortunately, one of the beneficiaries was willing to provide us with some information.
[00:28:41] Alex Palmer: It turns out that even though Young and Fred Garvin had thought all along that these Mexican call centers were the ones making the, the calls themselves, doing the robocalling, actually this Mexican company said, no, no, no, we have, we have an American who does that for us. His name is Adrian. Here's his phone number. And after a little bit of googling, you know, Fred Garvin being the sleuth he is, finds out it's Adrian Abramovich.
[00:29:02] Will: So they straight up told him, I mean they, they did a lot of work to get to the point where somebody in the Mexican company was talking to them, they found the right people, but they, they literally handed over the name.
[00:29:12] Alex Palmer: They said, Adrian, a first name, and the phone number, and then Fred uh, quickly found that Adrian Abramovich had uh a consent judgment and an injunction against him from AT&T back in 2007 and '04 of all things, robocalling, so they put the two and two together pretty quickly.
[00:29:28] Will: So just to be clear, the Mexican companies with the vacation offers, some vaguely legit, and others not so much at all, weren't sending out the robocalls. They simply hired Adrian Abramovich to set all that into motion. So it looks like Abramovich is the source of the calls, the top of the food chain so to speak. Fred Garvin finally has what he's been looking for; the next stop for TripAdvisor is the FCC. They decide at the time to share what they've learned and enroll the government help in bringing down Adrian Abramovich.
[00:29:55] Alex Palmer: Yeah, so that first meeting in January 2016, um, Brad and Fred had put together sort of this dossier thing, look, you know, we've got this problem, maybe if we get enough clues the FCC will be interested in helping us.
[00:30:06] Will: What the TripAdvisor team doesn't know is that the FCC has been doing their own investigation ever since millions of robocalls had hit the pager network the previous year. Kristi Thompson is Chief of the FCC's Telecommunications Consumers Division.
[00:30:18] Kristi Thompson: And it takes, I can't talk about you know particular investigative techniques for, you know, obvious reasons, but we start digging in and, and figuring, trying to figure out where did these calls come from? Um, and we worked with the carriers who carried the traffic and uh both on, on getting the calls stopped and then figuring out where they came from. And as we're investigating, uh, it, it takes a while, but we finally do track it down, and we track it down to this gentleman named Adrian Abramovich in Miami, Florida. And that was the first time I heard or saw the name Adrian Abramovich listed right there as the, the sender of the calls.
[00:30:58] Will: Around the same time or along the way TripAdvisor comes to your offices, is that right?
[00:31:03] Kristi Thompson: That's right. So unbeknownst to me and, and, and it wasn't more than, I don't know, like a, a couple of weeks apart really, we had found, we had found the guy. We, we now had a name of the person who was responsible for making just a whole lot of illegal calls. And then, again, I'm there in my office and I get a, a telephone call from an attorney I know in town uh, who says, "You know, I've got this, I want to," you know, "I have this client named TripAdvisor," of course I've heard of TripAdvisor, every, you know everybody has, uh, "we'd like to come in and talk to you about a, about a robocall issue." And I have no idea at this point what it is that they have done.
[00:31:40] Will: So the TripAdvisor team and the FCC folks all sit down in January 2017 to chat about robocalls. Neither side aware that they're sitting on a name, the possible mastermind behind the illegal robocalls.
[00:31:52] Kristi Thompson: So, we have this meeting with TripAdvisor, and TripAdvisor sort of lays out for us the, the, the content of what those calls were all about, and here's why I, why it was so important and why it was so kind of uh eye-opening and groundbreaking to have that, that connection with TripAdvisor. Um, for very good reasons, now outside of Hollywood, it's not, it's not possible. You know, the government does not go around you know tapping into your phones and listening into your phone messages. And we also don't allow telephone carriers to do that either, which means we're relying on the recipient to say, hey, I need to file a complaint with someone. I got a bad call. I don't know when a victim has become a victim until they reach out and let me know. And in this case, we have TripAdvisor who is dealing with a whole lot of unhappy recipients, you know call recipients, victims, uh, who mistakenly think that they're responsible for calls that they didn't make, and they're fooling those customers into thinking they're doing business with TripAdvisor when, when they're not. What, so what TripAdvisor's able to give me is information that the government can't get because we, we don't spy on people. They have lists of people who receive the calls, they have the contents of that calls, they did a lot of legwork to figure out how Abramovich's whole scheme worked.
[00:33:11] Will: So they come to you and, and they've figured out...
[00:33:14] Kristi Thompson: Yeah...
[00:33:15] Will: ...this name. You have the same name, and it must have been like holy smokes...
[00:33:18] Kristi Thompson: It, it was, absolutely incredible.
[00:33:21] Will: High fives all the way around.
[00:33:22] Kristi Thompson: Absolutely, incredible, and yeah, so they, they walk in and, and they say, we've done all this research. There's somebody out there who's making these calls, and they're claiming to be us, and they're claiming to be Marriott, and they're claiming to be Hilton and Expedia. Have you heard of this guy named Adrian Abramovich? And I, I just about, you know jaw just about hit the floor. Uh I, I couldn't believe, you know what I was, what I was hearing, and they were able to provide you know detailed information about, about how this all worked, and you know, what was, what was really happening and how consumers were being affected on the, you know, the financial end, end. If they pressed one, if they bought that uh that vacation package that they thought was coming from TripAdvisor that wasn't.
[00:34:06] Will: Armed with TripAdvisor's information and their own investigation, they put together all the paperwork they need to go after Abramovich.
[00:34:12] Kristi Thompson: We looked at the situation and here's what we ended up with at the end of the day. We had one guy, Adrian Abramovich making 96 million illegal spoofed robocalls in a three-month period in 2016.
[00:34:29] Will: Unbelievable.
[00:34:30] Kristi Thompson: It was an incredible, it was an incredible number. Just, just miles after miles after miles of records of all the calls that, that he had made.
[00:34:38] Will: And you had a record of each of, each of those 96 million?
[00:34:41] Kristi Thompson: We had evidence about all 96 million of those calls. That's correct. So it was a, it was a mountain of evidence and it all traced back to him. Um, so at that point, this was the, the biggest violator that certainly I or any of my staff had ever seen, and it turned into the largest fine in FCC history. So the Commission, uh, imposed a $120 million fine on Adrian Abramovich.
[00:35:10] Will: Along the way as the FCC is investigating, Abramovich is called on to testify before the US Senate. For hours Adrian Abramovich sat in the hot seat to face the kind of grilling you might expect.
[00:35:22] (hearing) Mr. Abramovich, you represent nearly 100 million reasons why we need robust protections from the epidemic of robocalls and robotexts afflicting the nation. You and the companies you control are alleged to have made almost 100 million spoofed robocalls where you configured the calls in such a manner that the caller ID suggested that the calls were local calls.
[00:35:51] Will: Abramovich finally gets the bad news in July 2017. First warnings, and then the massive fine. The largest fine in FCC history.
[00:35:59] Will: So he gets this massive fine. Can he pay back any of it?
[00:36:03] Kristi Thompson: Uh, the FCC doesn't collect any of its own money. Uh, that's a Department of Justice collects on behalf of, of the Treasury, and I want to say the FCC doesn't even get to keep any of, any of the money that's collected through fines. It all goes into the general, the general fund that you know, all taxpayers uh have equal you know parts to.
[00:36:23] Will: So what do we know about Adrian Abramovich? Who is he? Does he live like a king making millions off of illegal robocalls and scamming victims? Alex Palmer meets him in person.
[00:36:32] Alex Palmer: Meet is probably too dignified a word for it. I showed up at his door, um, because you know the same way he probably finds a lot of customers, I found him. There's an online, you know, database where he can find out where a lot of people's addresses, phone numbers, names, so I turned up at one of those addresses and there he was. Um, and I knew from some of TripAdvisor's research and some of the documents the FCC has released publicly that he had a long business history in Florida forming telemarketing, sales, those sorts of corporations, usually lasting about a year and then dissolving. Um, and I knew that was his business, but I didn't know much about the man himself, and I was talking to him over two days when he was sort of wavering between whether he should be talking to the press or not, um, and whether he wanted me there at all, because his lawyer had advised him not to speak, but he sort of told me a bit about his life story, that he was descended from Polish immigrants who moved to Argentina, he had moved up from Argentina then when he was younger, and he still speaks with a pretty thick accent. Um, he had gotten into robocalling quite a while ago, worked from a home office. It's quite an impressive man cave with memorabilia from movies and especially bad guys that he loves, like Freddie Krueger, and the gangsters from Good Fellas. He's got an impressive record collection, a 80-inch TV, plush black leather couch, and he was talking a bit about you know why he feels this whole situation has been so unfair, that there are good guy robocallers like him, who are just trying to market legitimate services, and then there are the, you know bad guys, the real scammers, and he felt he had been unfairly lumped into the latter category. Um, he said it was especially humiliating the way the Senate uh served its subpoena to him to ask him to appear in April 2018, or to compel him to appear, uh before a Senate subcommittee. That they came in on Good Friday and tried to give a warrant um, to his or a, a subpoena to appear to his wife, and then when she refused to take it, they came back three days later with you know, a bunch of cars and screaming with their, you know, alarms blaring and um, a bunch of agents in suits and all the neighbors came out to gawk and he felt the purpose was to humiliate him.
[00:38:37] Will: From robocall king to owing millions to the federal government, Adrian Abramovich has fallen hard, but maybe not as hard as the FCC hoped.
[00:38:44] Alex Palmer: And the last I heard was that they were negotiating, uh, Abramovich and his lawyer were with the US attorney for a settlement well below the 120 million. So if you've looked at other cases of these robocallers, there are often spectacular finds like this, and then generally they end up paying a very, very small amount of it. So that's one of the sort of distressing things if you look at the FCC, and the FCC, you know, they have huge fines, and it looks like they're stopping robocalling in essence, and then you see how much they're actually able to collect. It's usually just a pittance of it.
[00:39:15] Will: Yeah, I mean personally, are you surprised that these guys like him are not seeing any time, you know, in a, in a prison?
[00:39:22] Alex Palmer: No. I'm not, because for one thing, there are so many of them, because the economics of it are just so good as a scam, you know, it's low cost, low risk, high reward, uh and then also it's just because our laws, technology has evolved so quickly that our laws have not caught up with them. So even though this is such a ubiquitous and hated crime, um, there are so many tangles of it of who has jurisdiction and what is legal and what isn't, and just the sheer volume of them. If, if everybody who made a robocall actually ended up seeing jail time, um, you know we'd have a very, very large number of people suddenly facing long prison terms which I'm not sure would be practical or would, might be a little satisfying to all of us who are so sick of getting them, but it's probably not the right solution, and whatever the right solution is, we haven't hit upon it yet.
[00:40:13] Will: So what can we do? What is the FCC doing outside of massive fines that may or may not be paid?
[00:40:18] Kristi Thompson: We're attacking it on multiple fronts, so because spoofing is such a problem, because it enables so much illegal robocalling, one of the, the first, you know, fixes that we are, are pushing in the industry, meaning the telecommunications carriers, your, your phone companies out there are pushing is something called caller ID authentication. So do you remember in the '90s and the emails that you would get in the '90s that were hawking all kinds of male enhancement pills and herbal remedies and...
[00:40:44] Will: Never got one, No, yes, of course. Yes, yes.
[00:40:47] Kristi Thompson: Well, telephone networks are kind of where, where email was back in the 1990s. So, what we don’t have is authentication for those caller IDs, so that's the first thing, is a technological fix to introduce that authentication technology into your telephone calls. Then, you will be able to say, I don't want to receive any calls that don't have this fingerprint, this digital fingerprint identifying where that call is really coming from. That allows consumers to make choices right there about, I don't want to, I don't want that level of risk. That means there's a whole swath of consumers someday who will be untouchable by, by robocalls.
[00:41:23] Will: So while the FCC is doing what they can to fight the problem, there are definitely things you can do to help yourself, like download one of the many apps designed to weed out robocalls and cut down on the daily nuisance. In the meantime, rest assured that fraudbusters like Fred Garvin are hard at work to stop scammers like Adrian Abramovich, and you can take Fred's advice.
[00:41:42] Fred Garvin: You know, if there's a number that you don't recognize on your phone, the best course of action is not to answer it, and it's a shame, because, you know, we all rely on, on our phones. Uh, but if it's important, they'll leave a voice mail. If you don't answer the call, you're going to get fewer robocalls, and uh you know when someone is asking for your credit card number or asking to pay in gift cards or anything, someone that you don't know, just hang up. It's not worth it to uh, you know put your financial stability at risk.
[00:42:20] Will: All right, well we're letting Frank Abagnale take a break and we have a, a very important guest with us coming out of this story all about robocalls and illegal robocalls and some that went particularly bad as we've told you about, and we're joined by Kathy Stokes, the Director of Fraud Prevention programs at AARP. Thanks for being here, Kathy.
[00:42:38] Kathy Stokes: Thanks for having me.
[00:42:38] Will: You're filling in for Frank here, because you have some very valuable information to share with us about robocalls.
[00:42:44] Kathy Stokes: Well, yeah, there's been some action recently um, among our lawmakers in Washington DC. The Senate passed a bill and then um, the House more recently passed one. They're a little different. They have to work out the differences, but basically it will uh, if all goes well, really, really stem the tide on illegal robocalls, specifically on calls that are um, made to look like they're coming from somewhere legitimate when they're not.
[00:43:09] Will: The spoofing.
[00:43:09] Kathy Stokes: Spoofing, the spoofing, yeah. So it would um, have the uh telecom uh industry set authe--, call authentication really is what it comes down to, to prove that that's where the call came from, or else it either won't come through at all, it'll be automatically blocked and you won't have to opt into that as a consumer; it'll automatically happen, or you’ll get some sort of an indicator that it's potentially a scam.
[00:43:32] Will: I'm, I'm so thrilled, as I'm sure our listeners are to hear about this, um, as we tell this story about how robocalls actually tied up a, a pager network and you know doctors and physicians were affected, and maybe patients. Um, it seems like, we'll have to see how this all works, I guess, right? I mean I can't even fathom it right now, because they've become such a part of our lives.
[00:43:52] Kathy Stokes: Well, you know, it's not going to make them go away. It's going to make it easier to determine if a call coming in is uh, is, is a scam because of the way it may be flagged, and some parts of the industry, the big players are going to be able to um, put the technology into place sooner than maybe some of the smaller carriers, but we will see a change. You know, nothing's a silver bullet, but with Congress working together in a bipartisan fashion which is unusual these days, um, to see something happen is, is encouraging, and the Federal Communications Commission itself is on top of this in terms of really tried to give the green light to telecom companies to go ahead and, and block these calls without requiring a consumer to say, I want you to.
[00:44:34] Will: And it will still allow, ideally, your physician, your doctor to be able to call and say, hey pick up a medication. The real ones are going to get through.
[00:44:41] Kathy Stokes: Yes, yes, that's, that's the intention.
[00:44:43] Will: Okay. Well, we also want to point out and make it clear that uh as much as our story may seem like, okay, this is out of control, there's nothing you can do, you actually can do something, and there's real reason to do that.
[00:44:54] Kathy Stokes: Well absolutely. Any time you are confronted with a potential scam, you should report it, and you can go to the FTC website, FTC.gov/complaint. You can call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline. It's really important that people in the um, in the community of going after the bad guys, know what's happening out there so that they can develop a fact pattern and actually you know, lead to justice.
[00:45:20] Will: And Kathy, as far as this legislation goes and what's going on, uh with, with laws and carriers, and what might change everything, what is the AARP doing? How are we supporting it? Are we getting behind it?
[00:45:30] Kathy Stokes: Yeah, absolutely. Our government affairs team has been working really closely with uh the folks on the hill, um, in the House and the Senate, um, to try to get this bill over the finish line, and uh we've publicly advocated for this activity. We're working with the Federal Communications Commission as well, and one of the particular areas we want to make sure happens in the final legislation is that the technology that blocks these calls and protects consumers, be free to all consumers and not be something you have to pay to get.
[00:46:00] Will: That seems very reasonable. Um, and so if, if the technology to authenticate then calls, in other words it's making sure that these calls are legitimate, um, does that mean that, couldn't somebody still spoof?
[00:46:14] Kathy Stokes: Well the idea is that the technology, and it's oddly called Shake and Stir, um, would um, sort of, I guess, ping the system so that if your caller ID says this is the Social Security Administration, the technology will be able to authenticate that that is a number and a source for the Social Security Administration. And if they can't authenticate it, then it either gets blocked completely or it comes through with some indication that it's uh likely a scam.
[00:46:47] Will: So you might have a, an organization that uses lots of different numbers and you may want to use a number that you're not actually calling from, but it's still legitimate. So that's how that should work in the future.
[00:46:58] Kathy Stokes: Yeah, um, the other issue we had been talking about earlier was with spoofing. You know there's, you assume that a spoo--, spoofing is illegal, but it's actually used legally in many cases, um, for example, let's say it's 3 o'clock in the morning and you have horrible stomach cramps, and you call your doctor, and your doctor calls you back. You doctor's not going to call you from his bedside phone or his cell phone, he's going to call and make it look like he's coming from his office, so he's not divulging his personal information. It's an entirely legal use of spoofing.
[00:47:28] Will: That's an authenticated call.
[00:47:30] Kathy Stokes: Yes, that's an authenticated call.
[00:47:31] Will: All right.
[00:47:31] Kathy Stokes: Yeah.
[00:47:32] Will: Kathy, it's not your first time joining us. I hope you'll come back again and fill in Frank's shoes.
[00:47:36] Kathy Stokes: I would love to.
[00:47:36] Will: All right, Kathy Stokes is Director for Fraud Prevention Programs at AARP, thanks again.
[00:47:41] Kathy Stokes: Thank you.
[00:47:41] Will: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a scam or fraud, don't hesitate to call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-905-3360. And as always, thanks to my team of scambusters; producers Julie Getz and Brook Ellis, our audio engineer, Julio Gonzales, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP - The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
[00:19:46] Will: All right, so Fred finally has one of these calls himself, which is kind of funny to think about, here's this guy who works for a company and he'd been talking to all these consumers who were getting robocalls, but what he really wanted was one of the calls himself. He brings up the point that companies that are smart are, are thinking about these issues uh because they know it can be a real nightmare in terms of customer relations and how happy their customers are. So companies are going the direction of having fraud departments; for a long time they've doing that, right?
[00:20:12] Frank Abagnale: Right, absolutely. I mean, probably 25, 30 years ago a retired FBI agent in Austin, Texas, uh realized that a lot of people needed to be educated about being fraud examiners, so he started an association, and he provided educational programs so that you could get accredited as a certified fraud examiner. In the beginning it didn't mean a lot because a lot of people didn't really uh participate, but now we have thousands and thousands of certified fraud examiners who have gone through the educational process, and they're hired by insurance companies and all businesses that have fraud departments uh to deal with all these issues of fraud against their company. I was in London uh dealing with one of their phone companies that said, 44,000 calls a day, 7 days a week to their call center, and they get millions of calls at the call center, are people who have been scammed. They said, well, some guy said he was from the phone company, and I owe this money. I've got this false statement in the mail, but 44,000 calls of this phone company in Great Britain, which they only service Great Britain, every day are scams. Uh, so the thing is though, if you're a large company you can afford fraud examiners, and you can afford a fraud department like as banks do, and etc. But the smaller companies can't afford that, so they don’t have the ability to fight fraud as a big company can or have fraud examiners go out and do things that law enforcement doesn't have the time or the resources to do every single day; they do that themselves. So I think it's great that there are people, uh in companies now that do this for a living, and, and we have great data analytics today. Because there is so much data today, uh companies that provide data analytics like Lexus Nexus, Experian, companies like that, they're able to know so much about what's going on and to track so many of the things that are going on and see where they're coming from, so these alerts come up and, they understand right away this is a scam. And, and I think there's a lot more training going on at call centers, uh to help educate their employees of when they're being socially engineered because as I've always said there is no technology, there never will be any technology to defy social engineering. You can only defeat it through education, so you have to educate their employees to know they're being socially engineered, but I think they're doing a much better uh job of that and cyber awareness, all the things that's going on internally in companies, uh is helping fight a lot of this fraud that was committed against these companies or where their company is used as part of the, the fraud scam.
[00:22:41] Will: All right, well join us again next week as we tell our listeners what happens with Fred Garvin and the TripAdvisor team as they dig further into this robocall scam. Thanks, Frank, we'll talk to you next week.
[00:22:51] Frank Abagnale: Right, great being here.
[00:22:52] Will: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, don't hesitate to call AARP's Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-905-3360. As always, thanks to my team of scambusters; producers Julie Getz, Brook Ellis, our audio engineer, Julio Gonzales, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP – The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
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