Millions of scams a day: NC robocalls lawsuit could win money for victims

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North Carolina is seeking hundreds of billions of dollars in a lawsuit Attorney General Josh Stein filed Tuesday against a company accused of helping scammers place some of the robocalls that inundate people’s phones.

Texas-based telecommunications business Articul8 helped facilitate scam calls across the country, the lawsuit says. That includes tens of millions of calls to North Carolinians, even though the company either knew or should’ve known that it was helping criminals try to defraud people, the lawsuit says.

Rather than targeting individual scammers, many of whom are overseas, the state is instead going after the company that has been routing their calls and making a good profit doing so, Stein said in an interview Tuesday.

“All of these robocalls that inundate our phones can only happen if there are telephone companies willing to turn a blind eye,” he said.

Articul8 did not respond Tuesday to an email from The News & Observer requesting comment.

The lawsuit was filed somewhat ironically on the anniversary of the day in 1915 when telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell held a cross-country phone call with President Woodrow Wilson to show off the newfangled technology.

Today, 107 years later, some Americans may be feeling less-than-fond toward Bell and his invention — which, for all its benefits, also now allows them to be constantly harassed by robocalls about bogus car warranty problems, imaginary online shopping purchases, supposedly suspended Social Security numbers and other scams.

Scammers steal millions

The lawsuit points to one span, from December 2020 through April 2021, when it says Articul8 helped suspected scammers place more than 515 million robocalls just in those five months.

“Because only a small percentage of recipients will fall for these scams, their success depends on the scammers’ ability to bombard U.S. consumers with millions of these calls every day,” the lawsuit says. “And this is where defendants come in.”

For most people the intrusions are more an annoyance than a real threat. The lawsuit notes that the majority of suspected scam calls are never answered, and those that do get answered usually only last a few seconds.

But it only takes a handful of victims for criminals to win big.

“A low percentage of North Carolinians fall victim to these scammers,” Stein said. “But when they do, they fall hard. ... We know of a local woman, in Raleigh, who lost over a million dollars.”

If it turns out that the scammers who took advantage of her, or anyone else in North Carolina, were using Articul8’s services, Stein said, then any money the state might win from the lawsuit might go toward paying them back for some of their losses.

“We want to put a stop to this company’s practice of facilitating international scam calls, and we want to make them pay for violating state and federal law,” he said.

People who think they were scammed can go online to report it at ncdoj.gov/complaint or can call the attorney general’s office at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.

Millions of calls are good for business

In part because it takes millions of tries to get one person to pick up the phone and fall for the fraud, Stein said, robocalls are lucrative for communications companies like Articul8 — even if they don’t make any money off the actual scams.

The lawsuit claims that multiple government agencies have warned Articul8 that it’s hosting scammers, but the company did nothing, since the scammers pay so much money for the company’s services.

“Because a high volume of calls is both essential to the success of these schemes and a source of defendants’ revenue, defendants have an interest in continuing to facilitate these fraudulent schemes,” the lawsuit says.

Stein, a Democrat who was first elected in 2016, has made consumer protection lawsuits like this one a priority of his tenure leading the N.C. Department of Justice. He helped organize a nationwide effort with other states’ attorneys general to pressure the federal government to do more to crack down on companies that facilitate the scam calls.

He has also taken a lead on similar efforts that later became national news — like accusing e-cigarette maker Juul of marketing to children, suing Google on claims it violated antitrust laws, and helping coordinate multi-state settlements for billions of dollars with some of the companies behind the opioid epidemic.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.

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