Alleged 'robocall' mastermind denies wrongdoing before U.S. Senate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Florida man alleged to have made almost 100 million robocalls to trick consumers with “exclusive” vacation deals from well-known travel and hospitality companies on Wednesday denied wrongdoing before a U.S. Senate Committee.

In June, the Federal Communications Commission said Adrian Abramovich allegedly made 96 million robocalls during a three-month period in 2016, and proposed a $120 million fine.”I am not the kingpin of robocalling that is alleged,” Abramovich said as he appeared under subpoena.

He denied engaging in “fraudulent activities” and said “it was always my intent with the FCC to negotiate toward an appropriate fine within my ability to pay such an amount.”

Abramovich declined to answer some questions about his case, asserting he was invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Senator John Thune, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said Abramovich had waived his right to avoid answering questions when he discussed his case at the hearing. Thune warned that Abramovich could be held in contempt of Congress if he did not answer questions.

The calls, which the FCC said violated U.S. telecommunications laws, appeared to offer vacation deals from companies such as Marriott International Inc, Expedia Group Inc, Hilton Inc and TripAdvisor Inc.

TripAdvisor complained to the FCC in 2016 after getting complaints from consumers claiming it was robocalling them.

Consumers who answered the calls were transferred to foreign call centers that tried to sell vacation packages, often involving timeshares.

These call centers were not related to the major companies, the FCC said.

Abramovich told the Senate he had been engaged in legitimate telemarketing for more than 15 years and that the calls were offering real vacation packages.

The FCC said in June “Abramovich is the perpetrator of one of the largest — and most dangerous — illegal robocalling campaigns that the Commission has ever investigated.”

Those robocalls impacted other people and services, the FCC said. Abramovich “engaged in regular mass-robocalling campaigns during 2015 and 2016” that “repeatedly disrupted a critical telecommunications service used by hospitals and emergency medical providers,” it said.

U.S. consumers get nearly 2.5 billion monthly robocalls - automated, prerecorded calls that regulators have labeled a “scourge,” according to FCC estimates.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said last year “Americans are mad as hell” at robocalls and the agency gets more than 200,000 complaints annually.

In November, the FCC approved new rules to protect consumers from unwanted robocalls, allowing phone companies to proactively block calls likely to be fraudulent. Some senators want the FCC to take additional steps.

The FCC authorized voice providers to block robocalls that appear to be from telephone numbers that do not or cannot make outgoing calls.

The FCC wants a reliable verification system to prevent scam artists from spoofing the number of a bank, debt collector, government tax agency or other organizations to trick consumers into disclosing confidential financial information.

AT&T Inc said in March it had blocked 3.5 billion illegal robocalls and was working with regulators to put an end to unwanted solicitations.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bernadette Baum