Photo via Shutterstock
Photo via Shutterstock

Two Texas companies have been flooding Michigan with unwanted, illegal robocalls. Michigan is fighting back.

LANSING, MI — How many spam calls have you gotten lately?

Across the nation, 300 million unwanted robocalls — that is, calls from computer programs delivering recorded messages — are received by Americans every single day, according to a study by Transaction Network Services. The average person receives almost one spam call a day. The YouMail Robocall Index reports that in May 2020 alone, 3 billion robocalls were made. Nearly half of all calls to cell phones are robocalls.

And Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is fighting them.

Nessel has joined a lawsuit against two Texas-based robocall farms, Rising Eagle Capitol and JSquared Telecom. Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas joined together to file the lawsuit. 

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“These bad actors seeking to take advantage of consumers are the exact reason we created our Robocall Crackdown Initiative,” Nessel said in a statement. “We have made it clear that illegal robocalls are not welcome here and thanks to this collaborative effort, we are holding these businesses accountable for attempting to mislead and harass consumers.”

Some robocalls are legal, but the overwhelming majority are not. With rare exceptions, a company needs written permission to send automated phone calls to someone. Robocalls that solicit or sell goods or services are almost always unlawful, the Federal Trade Commission cautions, and are typically scams. 

The Danger During a Pandemic

Nessel has been fighting robocalls for the last year, but the problem has gotten more serious during the pandemic. 

Over the course of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Michigan has pleaded with residents to risk taking spam calls in case the unknown number calling is a local or state health official attempting to perform contact tracing and notify someone potentially exposed to the coronavirus of the need to get tested. 

“We recognize many people do not like to answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number, but during this time this call could be someone offering you important information regarding your health,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health, in a press conference in April. “We ask Michiganders to please answer these calls and return voicemails from the local health departments or the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.”

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Worse, the robocalls themselves have adapted to the pandemic. Provision Living, a retirement community company, conducted a survey that found robocallers tailoring scams to target seniors worrying about the disease. Of those calls, 22% promised treatments, 18% promised financial relief and 15% claimed to be calling from the IRS regarding stimulus checks. 

A Fight Long in the Making 

Nessel’s office has been focusing on fighting the spread of robocalls since November of last year. Unveiling 12 initiatives to combat unwanted spam calls, the attorney general launched a four-prong approach to cracking down on robocalls. The four prongs were educating Michigan residents on the issue, stricter enforcement of existing laws, legislative work to strengthen Michigan law, and developing a roadmap for other states to follow.

“There is nothing more annoying, more intrusive, uninvited, and unwelcome than robocalls,” Nessel said. “Because of that bombardment of calls, more and more Michiganders end up falling victim to the avalanche of illegal robocall scams targeting them each day. We are working to put a stop to that starting right now.”

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Nessel said the companies involved in this lawsuit also engage in a common robocall practice of generating fake numbers to fool caller identification software and trick recipients into thinking the Texas-based firms were calling from local Michigan phone numbers. This caller ID spoofing tactic is so pernicious that the Federal Communications Commission has recommended Americans not answer calls from numbers they don’t know as a matter of course.

If you wish to help report robocallers to the attorney general, Nessel’s office requests a complaint that lists the robocaller’s phone number, your phone number and service provider, the date and time of the robocall, whether the robocall was soliciting goods or services, and the topic of the robocall scam. Nessel’s office notes that only cell phone data can be tracked, so reports of robocalls to landlines are not helpful in the investigations.