Spam phone calls have been annoying Americans for decades.A regulatory crackdown has had some impact – and forced spammers to get creative.Most people are on the Do Not Call list, but “consent farms” claim they sell a way around it.
Been getting slammed with unwanted spam calls? You may have unwittingly asked for them.
Deceptive websites trick you into handing over your number under the pretense of free stuff or job leads. Buried in fine print is consent to let telemarketers contact you — even if you’re on the Do Not Call list.
In theory, telemarketers are highly regulated. Everybody hates them; the FTC’s Do Not Call list has more than 246 million phone numbers on it, almost equal to the adult population of the US.
But in practice, unwanted robocalls — pitching debt consolidation, Medicare help, auto warranties, student loan relief, you name it — are rampant. Millions of Americans, disproportionately older people, fall prey to spam or get roped into paying for things they don’t want or need.
There have been small victories. The Federal Communications Commission made carriers adopt standards to prevent caller ID spoofing, which has culled the number of illegal calls — often from offshore call centers — to American consumers. And the Federal Trade Commission has investigated spam-calling networks, filed lawsuits, and imposed huge fines.
But as regulators have clamped down, spam callers have gotten more creative.
In recent years, some telecom providers have managed to maintain access to US networks by using the ultimate defense: spurious “consents” farmed by websites that trick users into agreeing to be hit up by telemarketers, even if their number is on the Do Not Call list.
Consent farms might look like job-search or comparison-shopping websites, pitched to users via emails or text messages. They might offer free stuff, gift cards, or job leads in exchange for their personal information.
The devil is in the details. Key disclosures are missing or buried in fine print, the job listing may be expired, or you have to spend money to get the gift card. But the really bad news: By clicking a button agreeing to the site’s seemingly boilerplate legalese, you’ve agreed to get calls and texts from dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of spammy businesses.
Farming consent from unwitting consumers
Kelly Pinn gets a lot of spam phone calls. Unlike most people who get spammed, though, she’s suing the people who call her.
In April 2022, Pinn answered a call from an Indian telemarketer pitching debt relief. It was, she claimed, at least the sixth such call she received.
Since then, Pinn’s lawyer Ethan Preston has been firing off subpoenas to try to find out how, exactly, his client was called despite having her number on the Do Not Call list.
In Pinn’s case, an Austin-based company called ActiveProspect Inc. claimed that two months before she was called, Pinn consented to calls from another company by filling out a form on HealthInstantly.org. That website, her lawyer found, was run by a convicted felon named Chad Smanjak who has been linked to a huge student-loan robocalling operation.
That site included fields for a user’s name and phone number, a 397-word disclosure paragraph with a link to a list of about 5,400 “marketing partners,” and a “Compare Quotes” button.
ActiveProspect told Insider its technology is meant “to reduce unsolicited consumer outreach,” not to enable it. Phone numbers listed for Smanjak were disconnected, and he didn’t reply to requests for comment sent via LinkedIn.
Preston said Pinn never gave consent for any of these companies to contact her. He’s still trying to figure out who’s at fault.
“It’s this Black Mirror-dystopian kind of harm that they’re doing,” he told Insider. “Imagine someone manufacturing fraudulent consent! And imagine the gaslighting.”
Consent farms run rampant
The FTC and other regulators call websites like HealthInstantly.org “consent farms.” The site, Preston said, was run by Smanjak; the FCC has said Smanjak and his ex-wife, who was indicted in 2021 for an alleged student loan relief scam, are tied to companies in Orange County, including a carrier called Urth Access, that made millions of illegal robocalls.
When pressed by other carriers to justify the student-loan calls, Urth Access said it gained consent on health insurance websites with the same “marketing partners” link buried in a boilerplate disclosure, per an FCC investigation.
“Listing more than 5,000 ‘marketing partners’ on a secondary website is not sufficient to demonstrate that the called parties consented to the calls,” the agency said.
Consent farms sit at the center of a two-sided market. On one side are affiliate marketers, who get paid to steer traffic to the farms’ websites. On the other side are buyers — some legitimate, some not — that pay for leads.
It can be a big business. Fluent, Inc. is a publicly traded company that says it “drives action and engagement for leading brands.” But in an action filed last month, the FTC claimed that a sixth of its revenue in 2018 and 2019 came from selling consents.
Fluent — which paid $2.5 million to settle the FTC’s case without admitting anything — allegedly bait-and-switched millions of people into thinking they were on the cusp of cashing in, when just a fraction of 1% of users ever got a gift card.
Its workers exchanged winky emojis when they joked about how contractors often don’t follow its guidelines, according to the FTC. Fluent’s chief lawyer said in a deposition, “Can you explain to me what element of the TCPA requires that consumers be aware that they’ve given consent?”
Not all lead generation is bad; if a consumer looking at mortgage rates expressly agrees to calls from five lenders, most people think it’s OK for that person to get calls from five lenders.
The cases that regulators have gone after are more questionable. “We agree that 5,000 people is just egregious,” said Rob Seaver, whose group, the PACE Association, advocates for marketing companies in Washington. “Right now, our members, by and large, do not do that.”
A Fluent spokesman declined to comment.
Fluent and another company that got sued by the FTC, Viceroy Media Solutions, aren’t the only operators of consent farms. Insider found several other websites with similar strategies: offer up prizes and bury consent to be called by hundreds or thousands of companies in the terms and conditions.
On websites run by the company Flatiron Media, users have to consent to calls and texts from 1,976 companies in order to receive samples of unspecified consumer products or enter a chance to win money. Another company, C4R Media, runs websites that require consumers to opt-in to telephone contacts by more than 100 companies.
Flatiron Media didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment. Josh Gillon, C4R’s CEO, initially expressed interest in an interview but could not speak by Insider’s deadline and didn’t respond to specific questions about two of his websites.
There’s hope that consent farming — and the spam it enables — can be shut down. Effective regulation and enforcement saw auto warranty robocalls nearly disappear last summer after the biggest perpetrators, a group of people and businesses in Panama, were hit with a $300 million fine by the FTC.
Student loan spam declined a few months later, according to Robokiller, a subscription service that helps consumers screen calls. And the overall number of robocalls has fallen about 40% over the past year, though Americans still got about 5 billion robocalls and 11.8 billion spam texts in July.
The persistence of annoying calls and texts illustrates the whack-a-mole nature of fighting spam — and why ploys like consent farming have been cropping up.
“Scammers are smart,” said Giulia Porter, a Robokiller executive. “If one type of scam gets shut down, we see scammers picking up a new scam.”