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How to Tell an FCC Scam Call From a Department of Treasury Call

One of the intriguing aspects of posting on CommLawCenter is the level of interest a particular post generates.  Posts announcing something of vital importance to broadcasters will sometimes make hardly a ripple, while more mundane posts attract surprising interest.

Indeed, one of CommLawCenter’s most-read posts in its early years was a discussion of the first national EAS test.  It wasn’t that non-broadcasters had suddenly become infatuated with EAS; it was because the first national EAS test happened to coincide with a near-miss between Earth and what was described as a “huge asteroid”.  There apparently was a sizable contingent of conspiracy theorists who thought that a national EAS test being held at the same time as the asteroid’s arrival indicated a government cover-up of the asteroid’s imminent collision with Earth.  I never understood the logic of that claim, but a four-month-old post on CommLawCenter announcing the national EAS test date suddenly became red hot in web readership until the asteroid peacefully passed by Earth.

So it was when we recently reported that shortly after the FCC shut down, some stations were getting calls claiming to be on behalf of the FCC and asking for payment of “FCC fees”.  When stations pressed for more information, the callers became belligerent or hung up.  In response, we alerted stations to be wary of such calls and to be especially leery of any caller that requested payment by gift card, which is the most common form of payment demanded by scammers (because they can’t be traced).

That brief alert received a lot of trade press coverage afterwards, and I certainly hope it saved a few stations some headaches.  We subsequently sought more information to see if there was anything that could be learned about the calls (were they all actually scams, were there multiple approaches, or just one unified effort?).  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much more information available, as it seemed most stations had just hung up and moved on with their lives.  However, we did get an interesting tidbit from one station—the callback number the caller had left on voicemail.  While that may seem odd, it’s common for phone scammers to leave a toll-free number behind so that those called can run out, obtain the necessary gift cards to make payment, and have a number they can call back to relay the gift card payment information to the scammer.

This particular number didn’t generate any useful information from a web search, but the way this particular call had been described seemed more formal and organized than you would expect the typical scam call to be (although the caller apparently still became belligerent when pressed).  As noted in the original post, the FCC (particularly when shut down) doesn’t make collection calls itself, but it does typically send a written “Past Due Notice” to licensees when a debt has stayed unpaid for 30 days.

I checked my files for a Past Due Notice a client received a few years ago, and sure enough, at the very bottom of the Notice was the phone number the station had provided.  Now we were getting somewhere.  As it turns out, despite being on a piece of FCC correspondence, it was not an FCC telephone number, but one associated with the Department of Treasury.  While the FCC does refer past due amounts to Treasury for collection (a questionable practice given that when you want to sell your station or renew its license, the FCC already has all the leverage it needs to get paid), the Treasury Department shut down long before the FCC.  Since the FCC doesn’t make collection calls, and both the FCC and Treasury were closed when this particular call was made, who was doing the calling?

Making the circumstances even more curious is the fact that the FCC actually pays Treasury to handle the collection of overdue FCC accounts.  If the FCC and Treasury are both shut down because they have no appropriated funds to operate, then the obvious question is: Who is paying a Treasury employee to do FCC collections if neither agency has funding to operate in the first place?

So I called the number to ask.  A very pleasant person (not belligerent at all, at least to me) answered the phone and indicated that she wasn’t sure exactly how the contract between the FCC and Treasury worked, but that money was apparently available for their continued operations, as they had not been informed they were at risk of being furloughed anytime soon.  She also said that any of the calls to stations in which the caller hung up when pressed would not have come from Treasury, as they are used to people thinking they are a scam caller and therefore work hard to persuade people that the call is a legitimate one.

I told her that with the FCC shut down, stations couldn’t access the FCC’s Fee Filer or Red Light systems to determine the validity of any claimed debt, so there were some serious concerns about which callers were scammers and which might be legitimate outreach from Treasury.  She responded that they were was unaware the FCC had taken the Fee Filer and Red Light systems down, and appreciated knowing that.  She added that she certainly understood why a broadcaster might be skeptical of a call given the shutdown and the inability to verify the existence of a debt until the FCC reopens.  I suggested Treasury might want to focus its collection efforts on other types of debts until the FCC reopens, but in any event, that Treasury should be aware that their calls might be viewed with more than the typical amount of skepticism until the government reopens.

As we finished the conversation, she confirmed that Treasury only takes traditional forms of payment, so again, if a caller asks to be paid in gift cards, the call is a scam.

But what if the call successfully passes that first test?  How do you tell if the call is legitimate, and equally important, whether you actually owe the amount claimed?  Under normal circumstances, the first thing you should do is log into the FCC’s Fee Filer and Red Light systems to determine whether any debt is outstanding and the amount of it (if there are amounts due, you’ll be able to pull up a “Remittance Advice – Bills for Collection (Form 159B) for the amounts owed).  Since those systems are currently unavailable during the shutdown, if you aren’t aware of any outstanding payment due, you may want to wait until the FCC reopens and the debt can be confirmed before sending any payment.

Alternatively, if you get a call from someone claiming to be with the Department of Treasury, ask them to send you their copy of your Form(s) 159B, which is also used by Treasury as the basis for their collection process.  Once you are satisfied that you owe the debt (and interest), they will walk you through the payment options (again, no gift cards).  If you believe the debt claim to be an error, you can challenge it, but be aware that if you earlier received a Past Due Notice from the FCC and did not challenge it within 30 days of the date on the Notice, the government may take the position that you waived your right to challenge it.

So if you get a suspicious call claiming you owe FCC fees, whether you think it is a scam or not, it’s wise to check the FCC’s Fee Filer to make sure you are all paid up.  If not, the call might be legitimate, particularly if the amount the caller is saying you owe is similar to the amount the Fee Filer is indicating.  Note that the amounts may not be identical, as the Fee Filer indicates the initial amount owed plus any payment penalty (for example, missing a regulatory fee payment results in an immediate 25% penalty), but may not include all accrued interest, which Treasury will also insist on collecting.

But what happens if you still don’t pay?  Well, you will continue to have “Red Light” status at the FCC, which means the FCC will place a hold on processing your applications.  You won’t be able to sell your station, get its license renewed, etc., until the Red Light status is removed.  Also, once the FCC refers the debt to the Department of Treasury, if Treasury fails to collect it within a certain period of time, it will actually hand the bill to private debt collection agencies for collection.  Those entities are renowned for their skill at harassing debtors (sometimes legally, sometimes not) into paying.  If you have the misfortune to reach that state of affairs, you’ll dream of the days when you were only getting calls from scammers.