America’s telecommunications watchdogs have levied hefty financial penalties against illegal robocallers and demanded that bad actors repay millions to their victims. But years later, little money has been collected.
Since 2015, the Federal Communications Commission has ordered violators of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a law governing telemarketing and robodialing, to pay $208.4 million. That sum includes so-called forfeiture orders in cases involving robocalling, Do Not Call Registry and telephone solicitation violations.
So far, the government has collected $6,790 of that amount, according to records obtained by The Wall Street Journal through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The total amount of money secured by the Federal Trade Commission through court judgments in cases involving civil penalties for robocalls or National Do Not Call Registry-related violations, plus the sum requested for consumer redress in fraud-related cases, is $1.5 billion since 2004. It has collected $121 million of that total, said Ian Barlow, coordinator of the agency’s Do Not Call program, or about 8%. The agency operates the National Do Not Call Registry and regulates telemarketing.
“That number stands on its own. We’re proud of it; we think our enforcement program is pretty strong,” Mr. Barlow said.
An FCC spokesman said his agency lacks the authority to enforce the forfeiture orders it issues and has passed all unpaid penalties to the Justice Department, which has the power to collect the fines. Many of the spoofers and robocallers the agency tries to punish are individuals and small operations, he added, which means they are at times unable to pay the full penalties.
“Fines serve to penalize bad conduct and deter future misconduct,” the FCC spokesman said. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which can settle or drop cases, declined to comment.
The dearth of financial penalties collected by the U.S. government for violations of telemarketing and auto-dialing rules shows the limits the sister regulators face in putting a stop to illegal robocalls. It also shows why the threat of large fines can fail to deter bad actors.
“It’s great that we have these laws; it’s great that we have public enforcement, but because there are so many calls and so many callers, the public enforcement is a joke,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel at consumer advocacy group National Consumer Law Center. “It doesn’t even make a dent.”
There were 26.3 billion unwanted robocalls made to U.S. mobile phones in 2018, by one measure from robocall-blocking app Hiya. Another company that offers such services, YouMail Inc., puts the number of unwanted and illegal robocalls made in the U.S. last year even higher, at nearly 48 billion.