Billions of Political Survey Robocalls Used to Sell Cruises

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A cruise line and seven other companies accused of making billions of robocalls to consumers around the country under guise of political surveys were accused by the Federal Trade Commission and 10 states of breaking telemarketing and consumer protection laws.

The charges were announced on Wednesday by the FTC. Political surveys are exempt from telemarketing restrictions but can't then be used as for commercial sales calls.

"Marketers who know the ropes understand you can't steer clear of the do not call rules by tacking a political or survey call onto a sales pitch," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Anyone who assists in making illegal calls is also on the hook."

At the height of the calling barrage, in 2011 and 2012, consumers were getting 12 million to 15 million calls per day, the FTC said, generating millions of dollars of cruise sales. The calls would start with a greeting from "John from Political Opinions of America."

Caller ID Spoofed, Too

Regardless of whether consumers were on the national Do Not Call Registry or had asked to be removed from sales lists, the calls kept coming. And recipients were often off-guard when they came because the FTC said what showed up on caller ID was often manipulated.

Consumers were told they had been chosen to take a 30-second survey and could then get a two-day cruise to the Bahamas. Those who said they wanted the cruise, by pressing "one" on their keypad, would be connected to a telemarketer hired by Caribbean Cruise Line, the FTC said.

The telemarketing firm sold cruises, hotels, excursions and other travel packages. Two other companies -- Linked Service Solutions and Economic Strategy -- were accused of violating federal telemarketing rules by making the robocalls. The cruise company and those firms all agreed to settle the charges lodged against them.

Parties Can't Pay the Penalties

Five other companies, all owned by Fred Accuardi, were accused of "assisting and facilitating the illegal cruise calls." The companies provided the phone numbers and what the recipients' caller IDs would say when the call came. These companies -- Telephone Management, T M Caller ID, Pacific Telecom Communications Group, International Telephone Corp. and International Telephone LLC -- face a lawsuit over the accusations.

Under the terms of the settlement, the cruise line faces a $7.73 million penalty. That will be partially suspended after the company pays $500,000. Penalties of close to $6 million against the telemarketers will also be largely suspended after about $30,000 total is paid. The FTC said it is due to the parties' inability to pay.

States whose attorneys general took action along include Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington.

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