Swipe Left to Sue Robocallers: Is This App a Scam?

Robocallers. Lawyers. Which are the bigger nuisance? Which group does more harm by stuffing money into their pockets whilst delivering nothing of value to the rest of society? I previously would have said robocallers were slightly worse, although American lawyers are guilty of promoting some of the world’s worst solutions to nuisance robocalls, largely because American prosecutors almost never secure any real punishment for the people most responsible for illegal spam calls. However, that opinion was formed before I learned about lawyers who chase robocalls like other lawyers chase ambulances. A business calling itself LawHQ has combined some of the worst ideas of the legal profession with some of the worst ideas of technologists to create a mobile phone app that promises to ‘catch and sue telephone spammers’. Users are enticed to download an app named CallerHQ with the observation that ‘each illegal call can be worth $500 or more under federal law’. So how will this app work?

I hope you did not really expect an answer to that last question. The only truthful answer would be that this app will never work. First launched in 2021, if CallerHQ was going to lead to many successful law suits then it would have accumulated more than four reviews on the Apple Store by now. The main reason this app is a failure is that users cannot be expected to consistently differentiate between calls that are legal and those which are illegal when the lawyers who specialize in this branch of law struggle to determine which is which. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) prohibits several kinds of calls to US phone users, though its definitions are sufficiently complicated that lawyers continue to argue about how it should be applied. Complication leads to waste, as exemplified with a legal fight that culminated last year with the US Supreme Court deciding how to interpret a single comma in the TCPA. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of English grammar on that occasion, against the wishes of lawyers that want the freedom to change the meaning of words and punctuation whenever it suits them.

An app can collect some basic data about a phone call or text message but this will not reliably demonstrate that the sender did anything illegal nor who the sender is. Despite this, LawHQ promises ‘our team will investigate each reported spam’. This sounds like the kind of promise that a non-lawyer might describe as ‘a shameless lie’. LawHQ says they will take half of the proceeds of any legal action, but half of USD500 is only enough to cover one hour of the time of an average lawyer. Their investigation will rarely extend beyond a simple data look-up to see if many other spam calls have matching details. This then leads us towards the next flaw with LawHQ’s strategy. If they could persuade millions of people to download their app then they might have a chance at finding a few patterns that would justify the cost of doing real research into whether the calls were illegal and who might be sued for them. But they are not going to get that many users for an app that is effectively competing with heavily-promoted apps like YouMail and Nomorobo that already have millions of customers. A typical anti-spam app provides a valuable service to customers because it will block unwanted calls by aggregating information collected from a large user base. There may be some Americans who would prefer to receive the calls, instead of having them blocked, in the hope they will profit from the subsequent law suits, but that approach will see them receiving a lot of unwanted calls before they receive a single dollar for their trouble.

Not every scam is illegal, and American lawyers are especially skilled at devising scams that do not break the law. My first assumption was that CallerHQ is a marketing gimmick, designed to drum up business for a law firm by increasing the chances that they will receive the first call when the phone user gets arrested or has some other genuine difficulty that necessitates the help of a lawyer. Consider that the public profile of the founder of LawHQ says his firm intends to file telephone spam lawsuits worth USD1bn in the next 12 months. Filing a lawsuit is not the same as winning a lawsuit, but you might think the CEO of a business with billion-dollar aspirations would focus on that, instead of splitting his time between his law business and a ‘premier marketing and creative agency’. Thomas Alvord, CEO of LawHQ, is also the Chairman of Funded Today, a niche advertising business whose website claims it has helped to raise over USD488mn for crowdfunded projects. Alvord’s profile on that website says he…

…has run marketing for many online digital campaigns, including for multiple United States Presidential campaigns, and multi-million dollar political committees. He has also consulted with Fortune 500 companies on how to improve their digital marketing and strategy. Thomas has raised millions using the crowdfunding platforms Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. He is the co-author of an upcoming book on that topic called “Funded.”

That book was eventually called Funded Today, just like the name of the business, and the front cover promises readers will…

Discover our PROVEN SYSTEM to quickly raise BIG money for your next BIG idea.

Amazon reviews for the book were excellent, so at USD14.99 per paperback copy it is likely that Alvord and his co-author generated a nice profit. However, this contrasted with some rather less flattering reviews for the business with the same name. The following comments were copied from Trustpilot:

I paid this company $2,500 to help my Kickstarter campaign and all I got out of it was two 20 minute phone calls and a 71 page manual which was not relevant to my needs. Don’t trust this company.

They say they have an extensive network and run ads for you. But what happened to me was way below my expectations and I could have a better job myself. First off their Facebook ads run nothing like what you would expect and they border on illegal to immoral.

…our experience with Funded Today has been horrible and we couldn’t be more disappointed. We purchased a pre-campaign and the newsletter + ads services, for a total of 5.500 USD… At the end of the campaign, they sent a survey to all our backers, on our behalf and using our account, asking for their personal data (i.e. email address) with a scammy form and without prior approval from us. This is not just illegal, it’s also extremely unfair.

As time passes, I increasingly conclude that the purpose of the US legal system is to consume an enormous amount of money whilst delivering a tiny amount of justice. This would be consistent with a US health system that consumes an enormous amount of money whilst providing little care and a US education system that consumes an enormous of money whilst barely teaching anything. Meanwhile, politicians raise billions for their campaigns but their election depends on tortuous vote counts that take ages to complete, only for the results to be perpetually disputed. In each instance a key difficulty is that there will be never be sufficient resources if unnecessary complexity leads to great waste. Sometimes the solution involves the consistent adoption of simple and common standards, instead of permitting innumerable exceptions for every rule. It would be much easier to stop illegal calls if it was easy to tell which calls were illegal. Countries which have simpler laws are making great progress with reducing scams and other unwanted calls. Meanwhile, the number of robocalls received by Americans is rising despite half a billion dollars being spent on anti-spoofing technology and endless promises of crackdowns from lawyers and politicians.

US laws and regulations have been written by lawyers who are addicted to complexity because they are lobbied by lawyers who are paid to increase complexity and who generate yet more profit for themselves by navigating all that complexity. How else should we explain a comma in the TCPA needing the deliberation of the Supreme Court? It is notable that Alvord says he has been involved in big-spending political campaigns; US politicians are exempt from the rules that prohibit nuisance calls, so they habitually use robocalls to spam voters with requests for money. Meanwhile, corporate lawyers routinely argue that prohibitions on the making of calls need to be applied to others, but not to the businesses they represent. And if a complicated set of rules leads to lots of money being spent on complicated technology to distinguish good from bad, and to lots of money being spent on the lawyers who both prosecute and defend the businesses responsible for robocalls, then there will not be many technologists nor lawyers lobbying for a simplification of the rules. But if the priority was genuinely reducing spam, then that is exactly where the US should begin.

Normally I provide links so readers can check source material for themselves. I will not provide links to CallHQ on this occasion because I have no desire to encourage downloads of their app. If you really want to try it then you will find it soon enough.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.