Two robocallers fined $3m for Google listings scam

Two robocall scammers have been fined over $3 million in a US court for defrauding small businesses. The pair pretended to represent Google and falsely took unwitting business owners’ money in return for the promise of better search results.

Judge Cecilia Altonaga fined Dustin Pillonato and Justin Ramsey, owners of Pointbreak Media, LLC and Modern Source Media LLC, $3,367,666.30 for their robocalling campaign.

According to a court affidavit filed last May, they used their robocall system to phone small businesses offering Google listing ‘claiming and verification’ services. They said that they were affiliated with Google and warned them that their businesses would be removed from Google search results unless they paid up. It was, in short, a shakedown. As in, ‘nice search ranking you’ve got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.’

They went further, though, trying to upsell the victims with extra services like higher rankings on certain keywords. When victims paid up, they got nothing.

To add insult to injury, this pair even called people on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry, which is the system that it set up to protect consumers from nuisance calls.

Pointbreak Media had already drawn attention from Bank of America Merchant Services, according to the affidavit, which closed the company’s account in October 2017 due to predatory services, scare tactics, and high chargeback rates. It added:

Point Break then wrote itself hundreds of checks, without authorization, using prior or existing customer checking account data.

The pair used a portfolio of shell companies to try and divert attention from their scammy practices. These included Modern Spotlight LLC, Modern Spotlight Group LLC, Perfect Image Online LLC, National Business Listings LLC, and DCP Marketing LLC. They tried to use the structure of the companies they owned to deny liability, but the judge threw out that claim, along with another that denied personal liability for the scams. She said:

Pillonato and Ramsey are personally liable for the Modern Spotlight Defendants’ deceptive sales because they directly participated in the deceptive sales practices.

Well, good – but it may all be for nothing. A Wall Street Journal investigation last month found that even though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered illegal robocallers to pay $2.08m in total, it has collected just $6,709. With big bucks to be made, this means that spammy sleazebags have little to lose by cranking up their robocaller software and having at it.

Ramsey seems to be a good example of this. He already had form, having been collared for robocalling practices before. A standing FTC court order prevented him from placing outbound robocalls unless he can prove that he was only calling businesses, and requiring him to disclose the name of the caller on all outbound sales calls. He was also forbidden from calling numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, court documents showed, adding:

At the time that Ramsey agreed to these provisions, he already was violating them through Point Break.

In many cases, scam robocalls come from other countries, making it even less likely that you’ll nobble them. There are a variety of smartphone apps that aim to catch and block these calls, which may work for you if you’re plagued by robocalls.