In a deliciously ironic twist, an organization claiming to be fighting for consumers against the scourge of illegal robocalls has been fined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for placing nearly 10 million of those very same robocalls to toll free numbers so it could pocket the fees generated for connecting the calls.
The Unveiling of a Cunning, Idiotic Robocalls Scheme
In the shadowy back alleys of the telecommunications industry, Thomas Dorsher hatched a twisted and nefarious scheme worthy of a Bond villain, if said Bond villain was both mentally challenged and tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. Here is how it unfolded.
On October 29, 2020, the Industry Traceback Group (ITG) informed the FCC that a caller was targeting toll free numbers with millions of prerecorded voice messages. The ITG traced the calls to Integrated Path Communications, a competitive local exchange carrier, which in turn identified the caller as ChariTel, a third-rate telecom carrier formed and operated by Dorsher. The calls played a prerecorded message claiming it to be an “important public service announcement,” from ScammerBlaster (another one of Dorsher’s companies), after which the listener was informed that:
“There is a rise in scam calls impacting people around the world. Many of these scammers are directly funding terrorist organizations, and in 2017, 16 billion dollars was scammed from Americans. Much of this money is used to fund terrorist organizations such as the Al-Qaeda and ISIS to further hurt our neighbors around the world. It is critical that you report any phone calls from these scammers to the FCC or to the phone company of the scammer…”
This was followed by additional blather about scam robocalls, along with instructions to report them to the FCC and the ScammerBlaster website. Unless the called party disconnected, the message would play in a continuous loop for up to ten hours.
Between January and March of 2021, Dorsher and his companies (the “Dorsher Enterprise”) sent 9,763,599 of these messages to toll free numbers, many of which were used by large enterprises.
The Motive Behind the Illegal Robocalls Madness
It should come as no surprise that these messages were not being sent as a public service. The Dorsher Enterprise specifically targeted toll-free numbers with robocalls because as a carrier it received a payment for every call.
When a call is placed to a toll-free number, the owner of the number compensates its toll-free service provider for connecting the call. The toll-free service provider then pays a portion of this fee to the caller’s local exchange carrier for connecting the call to the toll-free service provider, and the local exchange carrier shares some of that fee with the carrier that originated the call.
In this case, the local exchange carrier was Integrated Path Communications, and the carrier was ChariTel, which received $0.0001 (one ten thousandth of a cent) for each minute of outbound calls that it made to toll free numbers.
So what did Dorsher do with this ill-gotten booty? He used some of it to launch telephone denial of service (TDoS) attacks against other companies. Like a website DDoS attack, a TDoS attack is a flood of calls to a telephone number made with the intent to tie up the line and disrupt communications. Dorsher claimed these attacks were made in an effort to “shut down scammers,” which even if true did nothing to make them any less illegal. Moreover, TDoS attacks can be even more dangerous than DDoS attacks, as they disable telephone networks and can disrupt critical emergency services.
The Gods Themselves
As the German poet Friedrich von Schiller once quoted, “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” The fundamental truth of that statement is underscored by this patently absurd scheme: in the space of three months, the Dorsher Enterprise placed more than 9.5 million illegal robocalls to toll-free numbers that actually instructed people to report illegal robocalls to the FCC.
Unfortunately, the mind that hatched this scheme was fundamentally unable to anticipate what would naturally unfold from it. Many of the companies that received the robocalls on their toll-free lines did not appreciate the unsolicited advice they offered, but nevertheless took that advice and reported the calls to the FCC, which promptly took action.
On July 14, 2022, the Commission adopted a Notice of Apparent Liability and proposed a penalty of $116,156,250 against the Dorsher Enterprise for violating the TCPA, namely section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) which expressly prohibits placing prerecorded calls to any number assigned to “any service for which the called party is charged for the call” absent prior express consent.
Dorsher contested the Commission’s finding of liability in a three-sentence response, in which he asserted that the FCC might “have the wrong person.” He later claimed that any TCPA violations were not deliberate, because he consulted with an attorney who apparently obtained a law degree from a cereal box because he allegedly informed Dorsher that the calls were not illegal.
Out of the Frying Pan
Parallel to the FCC’s decisive action, on November 22, 2022, a federal grand jury indicted Dorsher and his accomplices on multiple counts related to the TDoS attacks, highlighting the gravity of the offense. TDoS attacks are not a harmless prank; they have a troubling tendency to impede emergency services that people rely on when they're in trouble.
The Law is Clear
It is illegal to place prerecorded calls to any number that is charged for the call absent the call recipient’s prior express consent. The hefty fine serves not just as a punitive measure but also as a stark warning to like-minded individuals contemplating walking down the same crooked path.
In the annals of TCPA enforcement history, the tale of Dorsher and his clever, yet ultimately ludicrous scheme that cost him $116 million should serve as an eternal reminder of the difference between genius and stupidity: Genius has its limits.