FCC fines white-supremacist robocaller $10 million for faking caller ID

January 15, 2021 by No Comments

Enlarge / Former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum addresses an audience on March 20, 2019 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Gillum’s campaign was targeted by racist robocalls in 2018.

Getty Images | Saul Martinez

A neo-Nazi, white-supremacist robocaller who spread “xenophobic fearmongering” and “racist attacks on political candidates” has been ordered to pay a $9.9 million fine for violating the Truth in Caller ID Act, a US law that prohibits manipulation of caller ID numbers with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. The Federal Communications Commission finalized the fine against Scott Rhodes of Idaho yesterday, nearly one year after the FCC first proposed the penalty.

“This individual made thousands of spoofed robocalls targeting specific communities with harmful pre-recorded messages,” the FCC said in an announcement. “The robocalls included xenophobic fearmongering (including to a victim’s family), racist attacks on political candidates, an apparent attempt to influence the jury in a domestic terrorism case, and threatening language toward a local journalist. The caller used an online calling platform to intentionally manipulate caller ID information so that the calls he was making appeared to come from local numbers—a technique called ‘neighbor spoofing.'”

Rhodes made “4,959 unlawful spoofed robocalls between May 2018 and December 2018,” with several different calling sprees that “targeted voters in districts during political campaigns or residents in communities that had experienced major news events relating to or involving public controversies,” the FCC’s forfeiture order said.

“I is the negro Andrew Gillum”

For example, Rhodes in November 2018 “launched a campaign targeting Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams,” with 583 robocalls that “purported to be from Oprah Winfrey, who was in Georgia campaigning with Ms. Abrams,” the FCC said in the forfeiture order. The FCC order pointed to a CNN article from the time, which said, “The group behind the robocall is The Road to Power, a white supremacist and anti-Semitic video podcast hosted by Scott Rhodes of Idaho.” The robocall contained “racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric,” CNN wrote.

Another Rhodes campaign targeted Andrew Gillum, who was running for governor in Florida. “Well hello there. I is the negro Andrew Gillum, and I be asking you to make me governor of this here state of Florida,” the robocalls said, “with a man speaking in a caricature of a Black dialect,” CNN wrote at the time.

Rhodes was “motivated by an intent to cause harm to these communities and gain media notoriety and publicity for his website and personal brand,” the FCC said. Rhodes’ various robocall campaigns directed recipients to visit “theroadtopower.com.” A November 2018 article by the Anti-Defamation League described the site as “a white supremacist and anti-Semitic broadcasting outlet,” and the piece said that Rhodes had “achieved local notoriety in late 2017 when police linked him to the distribution of white supremacist propaganda at Sandpoint (Idaho) High School, harassment of a Sandpoint resident, and threatening, anti-Semitic calls that included recordings of Hitler.”

The FCC summarized Rhodes’ other robocall campaigns as follows:

In Iowa, he spoofed a local number to robocall residents of the town of Brooklyn and surrounding areas with xenophobic messages referring to the arrest of an illegal alien for the murder of a local college student. In Idaho, he robocalled residents of the city of Sandpoint, attacking the local newspaper and its publisher after they reported the identity of the caller. In Virginia, he made spoofed robocalls to residents of Charlottesville based on a false conspiracy theory in an apparent attempt to influence the jury in the murder trial of James Fields, prompting the judge to explicitly instruct the jury pool to ignore the calls.

Fine reduced from $12.9 million

The FCC determined that Rhodes’ calls violated the Truth in Caller ID Act because he “intended to cause harm” and to “wrongfully obtain something of value,” namely “exposure for his website and personal brand, ‘The Road to Power.'” FCC-cited evidence that Rhodes intended to cause harm included a robocall made to the family of Mollie Tibbetts, the college student who was murdered—Tibbetts’ family spoke out against the use of her murder in debate over immigration laws.

The FCC originally proposed a $12.9 million fine against Rhodes, who was given a chance to respond as is standard practice in cases of proposed fines. “The Commission found most of his arguments unpersuasive but did reduce the forfeiture amount based on evidence that one of the many phone numbers used in the robocalls—used during a California primary campaign—was in fact the caller’s number to use,” the FCC said.

Rhodes argued that the caller ID numbers he used “conveyed a political message and therefore were protected by the First Amendment,” the FCC said. “The last four digits of his selected caller IDs were either ‘1488’ or ‘0420,’ which Rhodes alleges are neo-Nazi symbols.” A footnote in the FCC order explained that “The number ‘1488’ is an amalgamation of the ’14 Words,’ a white supremacist slogan, and ’88,’ which stands for ‘Heil Hitler.'” Rhodes claimed that 0420 is a reference to Hitler because he was born on April 20.

The FCC determined that using those digits did not give Rhodes’ robocalls protection under the First Amendment. Even if Rhodes intended the digits to convey a message, which the FCC doubted, “there is no evidence in the record that the called parties understood that message.” The FCC continued:

The fact that particular numbers may be intended to convey a political message does not afford a caller the right to use the numbers in violation of the Truth in Caller ID Act. The Truth in Caller ID Act bars the knowing transmission of inaccurate or misleading caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. If Rhodes wanted to use telephone numbers to try to convey a message, he would have needed to obtain the right to use the numbers. Moreover, Rhodes’s contention regarding the last four digits of the caller ID numbers does not alter the fact that he chose the first three digits—and in many cases the first six digits—to appear to be a local number, in order to: (1) hide his identity and (2) make it more likely that a called party would answer the phone thinking that it was a local caller. In any event, we find that there was no message in the spoofing here that was comprehensible to called parties; instead, the spoofing was non-expressive conduct and thus can be regulated.

The public version of the forfeiture order redacted the name of the calling service that Rhodes used, but said the service operator told the FCC that “it did not provide the caller IDs for the robocalls that came from Rhodes’s account. The calling party [Rhodes] thus had to have selected the caller IDs.”

The FCC has a poor track record collecting fines against robocallers, partly because proposed fines often don’t lead to forfeiture orders. In Rhodes’ case, yesterday’s forfeiture order requires him to pay the fine within 30 days. If he doesn’t, the FCC said it “will refer the matter to the US Department of Justice for further action.”

Issuing the forfeiture order was one of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s final acts before he leaves the commission next week. “With today’s fine, we once again make clear our commitment to aggressively go after those who are unlawfully bombarding the American people with spoofed robocalls,” Pai said yesterday.

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