Millions of Americans constantly deal with seemingly endless robocalls. For many, the calls come multiple times a day, offering deals on things like vacations, health care or cars. These deals though are often scams and such calls are expected to make up more than 50 percent of phone traffic in 2019. Adrian Abramovich was found responsible for nearly 100 million robocalls when he testified before the U.S. Senate last year. Abramovich was charged with fraud for using names of other companies like TripAdvisor, to offer deals on vacation packages. He was fined $120 million by the Federal Communications Commission, the largest in its history. Wired contributor Alex W. Palmer interviewed him for a piece in the April issue, following the story of how two TripAdvisor employees discovered who was using the company’s name in fraudulent robocalls. Palmer sat down with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal to discuss the robocall operations. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: I need you to give me just sort of the high-level overview of how you came onto this story “The Search for the King of Robocalls.” How did it get started?
Alex W. Palmer: I had been, like every American, receiving all these strange calls from numbers that looked like mine, and I kept wondering, “Who are these people on the other end of the phone? Who are these people trying to scam us?” And then I came across a news story, just a little blurb, about the [Federal Communications Commission] issuing its largest-ever fine against someone they called the kingpin of robocalling. And I thought, “That sounds like a story to me.” And especially when I learned that he had actually been tracked down in part by TripAdvisor, by an investigator at their team who had dedicated himself to uncovering who was behind this massive spoofing operation, and went about trying to figure out that story.
Ryssdal: And what was the TripAdvisor part of this? Because it was, I mean, fictitious. The scam was bogus, right? As are most scams.
Palmer: Right. So it was an automated call coming into phone lines in the U.S. saying “Congratulations, you receive 2,000 TripAdvisor credits. You can use these for a great vacation in the Caribbean. Press 1 to learn more.” What upset TripAdvisor, of course, was that one, they don’t do credits, that’s not a thing. And two, they don’t do telemarketing, much less robocalling. It just so happened that whoever was directing this scheme placed one of these calls and it went to the wife of TripAdvisor’s general counsel. And she was tuned in enough to know that this didn’t sound right and asked her husband to what was going on.
Ryssdal: All right so let’s unbury the lead here. The king of robocalls is a guy by the name of Adrian Abramovitch. He has been fined a whole lot of money by the federal government. Who is he? And what was it like when you knocked on his door in Miami?
Palmer: I found his address the same way he probably found a lot of people he called, which was in a public database listing his name, phone number, address. I showed up and knocked, and there he was. He has a long history operating in Florida. According to the FCC, he’s formed at least a dozen corporations over the last 20 years. Most of them are in telemarketing, some sort of advertising sales over the phone. But this was the first time that he’s really gotten the harsh glare of the national spotlight on him and especially getting a record fine.
Ryssdal: Abramovich gets caught obviously, but there are something like 50 billion robocalls made in this economy every year? Clearly, it’s a problem that is escalating and federal regulators, they say they’re losing. They admit it.
Palmer: Right. And those numbers are only going up. According to one index, there were more than 5 billion robocalls in January, so that puts us on track for about 60 billion this year, 175 million a day. Most of those are technically legal. So if you look at one of these databases, the top 10 callers are all debt collectors. And that’s annoying but legal. Abramovitch was allegedly operating just straight out illegal and annoying, and that’s even harder to track, to put numbers on that. So we don’t even really know how many fraudsters are out there.
Ryssdal: And these calls were unbelievably cheap to make, and technology software lets them be cranked out by the tens of billions.
Palmer: That’s right. If you’ve got a laptop or a desktop, download some software, get some server space and hire a VoIP —
Ryssdal: Voice over [Internet Protocol].
Palmer: That’s right. You don’t even have to push a button in the morning. It’ll just do it automatically for you. You can be making money sitting back doing nothing.
Ryssdal: OK, don’t do that, kids. Don’t do that. So look, I don’t usually do this in interviews, but I need you to give me the moral of the story here because technology facilitates this. Regulators are throwing up their hands. It can be extremely profitable. I got rid of my landline at my house because all we were getting were robocalls. Now we’re all on cellphones.
Palmer: That’s right. By the end of this year, half of all U.S. phone traffic is going to be spam traffic or robocalls. So it seems like it’s up to consumers right now to deal with. Basically, what people at FTC and FCC told me, and Abramovitch when he was grilled before a Senate committee said himself, “I just don’t answer the phone.” If you don’t know who is calling, don’t pick it up. Someone suggested to me that perhaps the next ploy for robocallers is to pretend to be someone from your contacts, to spoof a contact, but until we get to that point, we’re all safe if we just don’t answer numbers we don’t know.