FCC Goes After Political Robocalls Sent to Cellphones

Herb Weisbaum
Don Bayley | E+ | Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission has cited two marketing companies with making millions of illegal robocalls—for both Democratic and Republican campaigns—to wireless phone numbers in 2011 and 2012. Both firms have been ordered to stop making prohibited robocalls to cellphones.

Political robocalls—prerecorded messages and autodialed calls—are allowed to most landline telephone numbers if certain rules are followed. Robocalls are prohibited to wireless phones and other mobile devices, unless it's for emergency purposes or the person receiving the call has given prior permission.

In its citation, the FCC said Dialing Services of Roswell, N.M. (which runs the website GOPCalls.com), and Democratic Dialing of Aurora, Colo., did not have such permission.

As part of its investigation, the commission spoke to 20 people who had received robocalls from these companies, and none had given anyone permission to robocall their wireless phones.

"In fact, several of the callers expressed significant frustration and anger at receiving autodialed and/or prerecorded message calls on their cell phones," the citation states.

Many said their wireless number was on the federal government's Do Not Call Registry and they still received unwanted campaign robocalls during local elections and the 2012 presidential campaign.

"Consumers have increasingly been sounding the alarm on robocalls, rightly complaining about unwanted, intrusive cellphone calls and text messages from strangers, or worse yet computers," Michele Ellison, chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau said in a statement. "These citations set the stage for significant monetary penalties if violations continue."

The maximum penalty for making illegal robocalls to wireless phones is $16,000 per call. That means each of these companies faces billions of dollars in fines based on the commission's estimate of the number of calls made in a three-month sample period: 4.7 million from Dialing Services and 1.1 million by Democratic Dialing.

What do the companies have to say about this?

In an email, Richard Gilmore of Democratic Dialing said, "We have no comment." His website, which boasted the company could make up to one million phone calls per hour, has been pulled down.

Chris Kolker, founder and CEO of Dialing Services, said his company "was never out of compliance with federal regulations," and he doesn't understand why the FCC went after him.

Kolker told me his site is "simply a service provider" that makes it possible for someone else to make robocalls.

"We don't make the calls," he said. "We inform our customers about the laws, but we cannot possibly police all of them."

Kolker said the site now provides a way for clients to scrub cellphone numbers from their calling lists.

Here is a summary of the rules on robocalls:

Prerecorded voice messages and autodialed calls (including autodialed live calls) to cellphones and other mobile devices are prohibited unless they are for emergency purposes or are made with the prior express consent of the person being called. This prohibition includes political robocalls and those made by nonprofit organizations.

If the robocall is allowed, it must start by saying who is responsible for making the call.

Political robocalls can be made to most landline telephones.