Libby man hit with big fine for spoofed robocalls

Scott Rhodes

The Federal Communications Commission fined a former Sandpoint robocaller now believed to be living in Libby $9,918,000 for illegally using caller ID spoofing with the intent to cause harm

Scott Rhodes was known to have made thousands of robocalls targeting specific communities with harmful pre-recorded messages.

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 publisher Ben Olsen of the Sandpoint Reader.

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.”

“The law is clear: spoofed caller ID robocalls used with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or cheat recipients is unlawful,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “And the American people are sick and tired of it. In this instance, not only were the calls unlawful, but the caller took them to new levels of egregiousness. 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.”

The caller made unlawful, spoofed robocalls to different communities around the country in 2018, motivated by an intent to cause harm to these communities and gain media notoriety and publicity for his website and personal brand. The FCC, Federal Trade Commission, and local law enforcement all received numerous complaints from consumers about apparently spoofed robocalls from this caller.

The six campaigns included in the order are:

In May 2018, Rhodes used the Dialing Platform to send 1,496 robocalls about the 2018 California U.S. Senate primary, where several challengers attempted to unseat incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein

In late August 2018, Rhodes made 837 prerecorded voice message calls to Iowa residents referring to the apprehension of an illegal alien from Mexico whom prosecutors had charged with the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a college student from the small town of Brooklyn, Iowa. One of the robocalls reached Ms. Tibbetts’s family. Her father answered the robocall because it displayed a local number. Family members told reporters that they suffered emotional distress after listening to the calls.

In September 2018, Rhodes made 750 prerecorded voice message calls to consumers throughout Sandpoint, attacking the Sandpoint Reader, a local newspaper, and its publisher, Ben Olson.

In October 2018, Rhodes targeted Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. The 766 robocalls falsely claimed to be coming from Mr. Gillum.

In November 2018, Rhodes launched a campaign targeting Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. The 583 robocalls purported to be from Oprah Winfrey, who was in Georgia campaigning with Ms. Abrams around the time of the robocalls.

In November 2018, Rhodes made 2,023 robocalls to Charlottesville, Virginia, area residents before and during the jury selection and criminal trial of James Fields. The defendant was charged with murdering Heather Heyer by driving an automobile into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville.26

The Truth in Caller ID Act prohibits manipulating caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.

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.

In Florida and Georgia, he made spoofed robocalls attacking gubernatorial candidates.

The nearly $10-million fine, formally called a forfeiture order, follows a January 2020, Notice of Apparent Liability which offered the party a chance to dispute the allegations or make other arguments.

Rhodes did respond but the commission found most of his arguments unpersuasive, though it 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 his number to use.