Americans keep being told about the tremendous success of Operation Stop Scam Calls, a joint
marketing enforcement exercise from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the attorneys general of every US state. Their speeches and media briefings give the impression that illegal robocallers are bombarded with enormous punishments every week. Indiana’s Attorney General, Todd Rokita (pictured) has been especially keen to tell voters that illegal robocallers are being hammered. Last month he issued a press release listing the ‘strong actions’ he was taking as part of a nationwide sweep of illegal robocallers, beginning with:
In April of 2023, Attorney General Rokita’s team finalized settlements with Startel Communication LLC, Wanda Hall, and Rapid Eagle Inc. — doing business as VoIP Essential Inc. These companies allegedly helped robocallers make over 4.8 million phone calls to Hoosiers and hundreds of millions of calls to other states across the United States. The alleged robocalls included a variety of scams, including IRS and Social Security Administration imposter scams, legal action or arrest scams, Apple support scams, and Amazon subscription scams. The settlements included civil penalties and injunctive terms. Rapid Eagle Inc. LLC agreed to follow state and federal laws on telephone privacy and pay $150,000 to the State of Indiana. Startel Communication LLC and Wanda Hall agreed to leave the robocalling and telecom industry forever.
Hmmm… so Rokita’s most prominent contribution to Operation Stop Scam Calls, which began in July, was something he ‘finalized’ in April? And the thing that was finalized in April sounds a lot like the victory that Rokita had already claimed when he issued a press release in October 2022:
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita today announced a historic settlement with Startel Communication LLC and its CEO… The resolution requires Startel and Ms. Hall, the CEO, to exit the telecommunications industry forever. Further, Startel and Hall are prohibited from operating or working with a telecommunications company.
However, what is really interesting about this case is the gap between the expectations raised by Rokita when he began prosecuting Startel and its CEO, and the settlement he eventually secured. See if you can spot the difference between what was written above and the press release Rokita issued in October 2021.
Attorney General Todd Rokita has filed a lawsuit against an Indiana company that allegedly acted as a gateway into the United States for robocallers in India, the Philippines and Singapore. The company, Startel Communication LLC, was owned and operated in Evansville by Wanda Hall and Abhijit Chowdhury, an Indian national…
…The lawsuit alleges the companies and individuals committed millions of violations of federal and Indiana law, with potential fines in the billions.
Who would complain about criminals being forced to contribute a few billion towards spending on schools, roads and public amenities? Rokita was so keen to emphasize the billions he hoped to collect that he also mentioned them in a video he recorded and shared via YouTube.
So how much money did Rokita eventually secure in the settlement he negotiated?
VII. MONETARY JUDGMENT
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that:
A. Judgment in the amount of One Million, Three Hundred and Thirty-Eight Thousand, and One Hundred ($1,338,100) is entered in favor of Plaintiff against Defendants as equitable monetary relief…
A million is a lot less than a billion, but it would still be a serious amount of money. However, the settlement continues…
…with One Million, Three Hundred and Thirty-Three Thousand, and One Hundred ($1,333,100) being suspended for the inability to pay.
So that just leaves…
B. Defendants are ordered to pay to the Plaintiff a total of Five Thousand Dollars ($5000).
And it would be best if the State of Indiana did not spend all of this windfall at once.
Such payment shall be made in installments over ten years in payments of $500…
Regular readers of Commsrisk know this shenanigans is representative of a media game played by every authority in the USA. Absurd headlines are generated about the punishments that illegal robocallers might endure. Huge nominal penalties are written into legal settlements reached with dodgy businesses that never admit any guilt. Crooks are willing to reach a settlement because the legal agreements also state that these nominal penalties will be largely ignored. Only trivial fines are paid, if any. Will the government even collect the full USD5,000 from Startel and its CEO? This media gimmick works because journalists uncritically repeat the boasts of prosecutors and federal agencies, but none of them will be checking if the debt has been cleared in a decade from now.
It is not like illegal robocallers are fiendishly clever people who devise brilliant legal stratagems to evade responsibility for their crimes. Just look at this snippet of an actual court submission that was hand-written by Wanda Hall, CEO of Startel.
What prosecutor could argue with the classic “I didn’t do it” defense, especially when it comes from the CEO of a comms provider that does not know what robocalls are? I am somewhat inclined to believe Wanda Hall’s defense because it is so stupid. Being the CEO is not the same as actually running a business, or knowing what the business does. Like other organized criminals, the people who most profit from illegal robocalls will hire dupes who are nominally responsible for front companies. This tactic leaves law enforcement lacking the power or motivation to go after the individuals who are really responsible for illegal robocalls. Prosecutions have no lasting impact because neither the stooges nor the front companies have any assets that can be confiscated. The person who actually orchestrated the crime remains at liberty to set up a new front company run by a new puppet. Keep this in mind when Rokita seeks praise for banishing Startel and Hall from the telecoms realm.
Much of the settlement that Hall signed concerns the business activities she is no longer allowed to engage in, and the theoretical potential to discover any non-compliance. Hall signed the agreement but the business was also run by Abhijit Chowdhury, who is described as an Indian national. So if Chowdhury spoke to an accomplice in India, and asked that person to recruit a different American to run a different front company that handles illegal robocalls, how would anybody working in US law enforcement be able to tell? They would not even be able to prove that the settlement signed by Hall had been violated. This is why legal settlements which ban illegal robocallers from working in telecoms are worth less than the paper they are written on. When it comes to illegal robocalls, the US legal system is no more capable of preventing recidivism than it can collect those million-billion-gajillion dollar fines that keep being promised.