Telemarketers Accused Of Using Political Robocalls To Pitch Caribbean Cruise Packages

A diagram from the FTC complaint showing how millions of automated marketing robocalls were made each day under the guise of a political survey.

A diagram from the FTC complaint showing how millions of automated marketing robocalls were made each day under the guise of a political survey.

While people at various points on the political spectrum may disagree about many topics, one sentiment many of them share is a distaste for prerecorded phone calls from political organizations. Like them or not, they’re generally legal even if the recipient is on the federal Do Not Call list. But when you use a supposedly political telemarketing call to ultimately shill for a cruise line, you’ve crossed over into the dark side.

In a complaint [PDF] filed yesterday in a federal court in Florida, the Federal Trade Commission and the attorneys general of ten states (Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington), accuse Florida-based vacation-seller Caribbean Cruise Line Inc. and various telemarketing operations of violating federal and state laws related to telemarketing.

Between Oct. 2011 and July 2012, the defendants allegedly made between 12 to 15 million calls per day, according to the complaint, resulting in billions of calls made during the 10-month period.

A typical prerecorded message would go something like:

“Hello, this is John from Political Opinions of America. You’ve been carefully selected to participate in a short 30 second research survey and for participating you’ll receive a free two day cruise for two people to the Bahamas, courtesy of one of our supporters. Gratuities and a small port tax will apply. To begin the survey, please press 1 now. To decline the survey and be removed from our list, press 9. Thank you.”

Those who didn’t hang up immediately and actually took the survey were eventually instructed to press 1 if they were interested in receiving the “free” cruise. This directed the caller to a human telemarketer who informed that there were $59/person “port taxes” for the cruise. They would also try to upsell the consumer on hotel stays, cruise excursions, enhanced accommodations, and other travel packages.

At the same time, other telemarketing services companies were allegedly aiding in these illegal calls by helping the callers spoof their Caller ID information so that fake numbers appeared on recipients’ phones. Spoofing is not illegal — except when used in an effort to defraud or deceive someone. These companies are also accused of hiding the identity of the cruise line and the telemarketers when subpoenaed by law enforcement and attorneys in civil cases.

Caribbean Cruise Line and two other companies, Linked Service Solutions LLC and Economic Strategy LLC, are accused of violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule by either making robocalls for marketing purposes or using robocalls to generated sales leads.

These three companies and their various principals have agreed to settle with the FTC. The deal proposes a civil penalty of $7.73 million against CCL, which will be partially suspended after CCL pays $500,000. Linked Service Solutions faces a partially suspended civil penalty of $5 million upon payment of $25,000, while Economic Strategy only has to fork over $2,000 to suspend the rest of its $295,000 penalty.

The FTC has not reached a deal with the operator of the interrelated companies accused of assisting and facilitating the illegal 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.

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