How to get the FTC's attention: Illegally robocall consumers while spoofing the agency's consumer hotline number

Seems these folks just wanted the Federal Trade Commission to smack them down. The FTC today said it had a federal court shut down an illegal robocall operation that allegedly impersonated the agency in an attempt to trick consumers into turning over all manner of sensitive personal data.

In its complaint, the FTC said The Cuban Exchange Inc., also doing business as CrediSure America and MyiPad.us, and its principal, Suhaylee Rivera, misleadingly claimed it could help consumers obtain refunds from the agency, in an effort to trick them into providing personal information and bank account numbers.

MORE: FTC throws down robocall gauntlet: $50,000 for best way to stop annoying calls 

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In addition, the FTC said the company falsely told consumers it has helped "more than 13,000" people get refunds and, to top it off, "spoofed" the FTC's Consumer Response toll-free phone number so that the agency's number appeared on Caller ID devices. The FTC said the defendants also used a website address -- ftcrefund.com -- designed to dupe consumers into thinking the operation had a connection with the FTC.

The FTC charged that the defendants made illegal robocalls to consumers that played a prerecorded messaged telling them to visit the website ftcrefund.com. During the message, they also give consumers a phony "seizure ID number." The message uses the same "seizure ID number" for all consumers the defendants contact. When calling consumers, the defendants allegedly transmit the toll-free phone number for the FTC's Consumer Response Center, 877-382-4357, often broadcast to the public as 877-FTC-HELP, to consumers' Caller ID devices, leading some to think the call was coming from the FTC.

"When the Federal Trade Commission returns money to consumers who have been ripped off, it doesn't use robocalls, and it certainly doesn't ask them to provide personal financial information," said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a release.

The complaint also charges the company with violating the Do Not Call (DNC) Registry by calling consumers whose phone numbers are on the Registry, failing to transmit accurate Caller ID information, making illegal pre-recorded telemarketing calls, failing to make required disclosures such as the identity of the seller and purpose of the call, and failing to pay the required fees to access the DNC Registry.

The FTC noted that this case marks the 100th brought by the FTC over the past nine years alleging violations related to the national DNC Registry, which was launched in 2003.

Robocallers have been at the top of the FTC's hit list of late. Just last month the agency pulled the plug on five mass calling companies it said were allegedly responsible for millions of illegal pre-recorded calls from "Rachel" and others from "Cardholder Services."

At the time the FTC said it gets more than 200,000 complaints each month about telemarketing robocalls, including calls from "Rachel" that pitch consumers with a supposedly easy way to save money by reducing their credit card interest rates. After collecting an up-front fee, however, the FTC believes that the companies do little if anything to fulfill their promises.

"At the FTC, Rachel from Cardholder Services is public enemy No. 1," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

The five complaints were made against the following companies: 1) Treasure Your Success, 2) Ambrosia Web Design, 3) A+ Financial Center, LLC, 4) The Green Savers, and 5) Key One Solutions, LLC. Each complaint alleges, among other things, that the defendants violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that consumers who buy their services will have their credit card interest rates reduced.

In the case, the FTC alleges that the defendants place automated calls to consumers, saying they have an "important message" regarding an opportunity to reduce high credit card interest rates. Consumers are urged to "press 1" to connect with a live representative, or "press 2" to discontinue getting such calls. Consumers who press 1 are connected to live telemarketers. Most consumers have no way to screen the calls using Caller ID, as the incoming number allegedly is often "spoofed," or displayed as a false number. In many cases, the name displayed on the Caller ID is so generic, such as "Card Services," that it provides little information about who is calling, the FTC stated.

According to the FTC, consumers who reach a live telemarketer are then pitched allegedly deceptive offers to have their credit card interest rates substantially reduced, sometimes to as low as 6.9 or even zero percent. The telemarketers allegedly guarantee that lowering card interest rates will save the consumers thousands of dollars in finance charges in a short period of time and will allow them to pay off the balances more quickly. Some telemarketers allegedly claim that consumers will save at least $2,500 in finance charges and will be able to pay off their balances two to three times faster, without increasing their monthly payments.

After consumers have been "approved" for the program, according to the FTC, the telemarketer informs them that there is an up-front fee, typically ranging from several hundred dollars to nearly $3,000. To convince them to pay the fee, telemarketers often say that it will be more than offset by the money the consumer will save through the program. In some cases, the FTC alleged that consumers' credit cards were charged even if they did not agree to pay for the service. In other cases, the defendants allegedly do not disclose a fee at all, or claim there will be no fee, the FTC stated.

While most robocalls have been banned since 2009, the FTC has seen the problems escalate over the past year. In October it announced the Robocall Challenge offering $50,000 to anyone who can create what the agency calls "an innovative way to block that will block illegal commercial robocalls on landlines and mobile phones."

As part of the challenge, the FTC said it would provide participants with data on de-identified consumer complaints about robocalls made between June 2008 and September 2012. Challenge participants interested in this data will receive periodic updates with contemporary data through Dec. 31, 2012. The complaint data will include: date of call; approximate time of call; reported caller name; first seven digits of reported caller phone number; and consumer area code.

The FTC said it has been working with industry insiders and other experts to identify potential solutions. However, current technology still lets shady telemarketers cheaply autodial thousands of phone calls every minute and display false or misleading caller ID information, the FTC said.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

Tags: 'Rachel from card member services', ftc, security, robocall, legal, robocalls challenge, industry verticals, government, CrediSure, cybercrime, Federal Trade Commission

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