LOS ANGELES, Calif. (FOX 11) - In an exclusive investigation, FOX 11 is tracking down and confronting some of the biggest robocaller offenders in the United States, accused of bombarding millions of Americans with illegal calls while living in Southern California, and we're talking to an overseas telemarketing scammer in India who explains how the scams work on gullible Americans.
In 2018, YouMail estimates there were 48.7 billion robocalls made to Americans, a nearly sixty percent increase over 2017.
"Those are huge numbers of calls growing at a really fast pace," said Alex Quilici, the CEO of YouMail, which collects and analyzes calls through its robocall blocking service.
According to YouMail's data, here in the Los Angeles area, just in December 2018 alone, every person received on average 18 robocalls.
"So this is what's happening in the 310 area code for robocalls, you can see that it's approaching 50 million robocalls to people in that area code," Quilici said.
YouMail keeps an index of all known fraudulent phone numbers, with the most popular scams being fake IRS scam robocalls, computer scam robocalls, and health insurance scam robocalls.
All of the robocalls will likely lead to both financial and identity theft if the victim takes the bait, and two friends in Marina Del Ray have become internet famous for turning the tables on the callers.
Their names are Ashton Bingham and Art Kulik, they run Trilogy Media, their YouTube videos have been viewed tens of millions of times. Their mission? Call the scammers, waste their time, and wait until they snap.
"Their time is their money, so when you waste an hour of it, they're frustrated, Bingham said.
It all began in 2016 when Bingham was receiving hundreds of robocalls to his personal cell phone.
"There's two ways I can get this to stop, I can try to file my number with a do not call list that I've heard doesn't work, or maybe I answer one and I mess with the guy and see what happens," Bingham said.
"The very first one I answered was a call, a video that went massively viral."
It was an overseas scammer pretending to be an IRS agent, and after Bingham wasted nearly 40 minutes of his time, the scammer went ballistic.
"Remember we banged, we banged your tower? We banged your buildings, remember that? The Pakistani scammer said. "We crashed a plane into your building, I think my father used to be Osama Bin Laden."
The video was viewed over 250 million times, and made national headlines.
"It changed our whole life and now we do this regularly," Bingham said.
But one call with another IRS scammer changed everything.
"It started with a video where we were calling to mess with him, he was trying to scam me," Bingham said.
But after Bingham called him out, the man came clean.
"Don't know what I'm thinking, what I'm doing, want to get out but have no options," the man said. Bingham and Kulik offered the man financial help to quit the job in exchange for information on how thescams work.They gave him the fake name Markissimo, and he accepted their offer.
Markissimo agreed to speak with FOX 11 from India via Skype.
"Ashton and Art called me up, so at first I was just trying to scam them, but after that we got along," he said.
Markissimo told FOX 11 he worked in an Indian call center with around 70 other people, where they impersonated IRS agents and targeted Americans, all starting with a robocall.
"At first we will send a voicemail to the phone numbers, and after receiving the voicemail they will call us back saying they received this kind of voicemail and what is happening with my taxes?," she said.
He said they would threaten the victim with arrest, or the freezing of their bank account if they didn't make a payment.
"Some people, they don't believe us so they'll simply hang up the call, but other times some people used to fall into our traps," he said. "Some people used to pay fifty or sixty thousand dollars."
Markissimo told FOX 11 he would be paid about 20,000 rupees each month, which equates to around $280.
"We don't have any jobs here, there's no jobs, there's nobody willing to hire us, we don't have many skills, your country and my country are different," he said.
Here in the U.S., it's illegal to robocall someone without their prior written consent, and the Federal Trade Commission is trying to crack down on American robocallers.
They've filed more than 100 lawsuits against the biggest offenders, including an Orange County man named Eric Oakley.
Oakley is the founder and CEO of a Tustin based company called Local Lighthouse.
According to the FTC lawsuit against him, from 2009 through 2016, Oakely was one of "several defendants who assisted their telemarketer clients in bombarding American consumers with billions of robocalls, including consumers whose telephone numbers were on the national do not call registry, and in spoofing caller ID information."
In a stipulation agreement signed by Oakley, he was ordered to pay $175,000 in civil penalties to the FTC.
FOX 11 tracked him down and confronted him in Costa Mesa, where he ignored our questions and closed his garage door on us.
The FTC also filed a lawsuit against a Moorpark man named Francisco Salvat. He was ordered to pay $155,000 to the FTC after the government sued him, alleging "his companies placed millions of illegal pre recorded telemarketing calls to consumers on the do not call registry, while claiming to be a non profit trying to help consumers with their energy costs."
FOX 11 tracked Salvat down and confronted him.
"The FTC is a federal agency, they think everybody did something," he said to FOX 11.
He then called his attorney to tell him FOX 11 was with him and asking about robocalls.
"What would you like me to do here?" Salvat asks the attorney, before walking back into his house.
"There is no going to jail penalty for these robocallers, it's just not in the regulations," Quilici said.
"It's not something they can do, so they focus on the fines which these robocallers really consider just a cost of doing business.
You may want to take this advice from somebody who know the game better than anybody else.
"Do not fall into this trap, do not pick up the unknown numbers, if you hear a foreign accent on the phone, if you hear a foreign accent on the phone, just cut the line, cause it's a fraud call," Markissimo said.
There are several things you can do to protect yourself:
1) Never answer a phone call that has an area code range of 1-200. Anything in this range is invalid and illegitimate.
2) Scammers will "spoof" their caller ID info, it will look like they are calling from your area code with even the first three numbers of your own phone number. Do not answer these calls.
3) Download a robocall blocking app. The three most reputable are Nomorobo, Hiya, and Robokiller.