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Jammin' - A Hit for Bob Marley, a Miss for Communications

Posted February 9th, 2011 by Michele Ellison - Chief of Enforcement Bureau

Over the last several years, cell and GPS jammers have become increasingly portable and accessible to consumers on the Internet. These websites often mislead consumers, suggesting that cell jammers may be used lawfully to silence unwanted cell phone use in restaurants, movie theaters, or on the roads. And, some websites (including many based outside the U.S.) claim that individual consumers are responsible for determining the legality of their jammers.

Don't be fooled!

Because jammers are designed solely to block authorized communications, the marketing, sale, and operation of jammers is illegal in the United States. Why? Well, using jamming devices can endanger the public.

Jamming devices are indiscriminate. For example, when a cell jammer is used, the jammer's unwanted signal is often set to the same frequency as the phone signal, only stronger.

The jammer's signal can be so powerful that it cancels the signal of all phones in its range – yes, it may silence loud conversations disturbing those nearby, but it also can prevent a desperate teenager from calling 9-1-1 to report an accident, an elderly person from placing an urgent call to a doctor, or anyone else from successfully placing an emergency or other safety-related call.

Similarly, GPS jammers are often touted as "anti-spy" devices that can prevent an employer or a suspicious spouse from tracking your movements in your car. However, GPS jammers can also disable the E911 function in certain cell phones that allows emergency services to home in on 9-1-1 callers who are injured or otherwise unable to provide their location.

Given these real public safety concerns, the Enforcement Bureau has adopted a strict enforcement policy in this area. Leveraging the presence of the Bureau's Field Offices across the country, we will aggressively pursue violations wherever we find them.

We caution users and suppliers that violations are punishable by fines of up to $112,500 per violation, and could lead to criminal prosecution (including imprisonment) or seizure of the illegal device.
If you have questions about our enforcement of the jamming prohibition, you can email us at jammerinfo@fcc.gov.  To file a jammer-related complaint with the Enforcement Bureau, you should use the FCC’s online complaint form at www.fcc.gov/complaints.


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Mystery solved: Consumers win in Verizon Wireless "mystery fees" settlement

Posted November 4th, 2010 by Michele Ellison - Chief of Enforcement Bureau

Late last week, the Enforcement Bureau resolved a ten-month investigation into allegations that Verizon Wireless incorrectly billed 15 million customers for unauthorized data charges.  The settlement -- the largest enforcement action in FCC history -- ensures that affected customers will get at least $52.8 million of their money back and requires Verizon Wireless to make a record $25 million payment to the U.S. Treasury.  It also obligates Verizon Wireless to cease billing for unauthorized data charges, give consumers more (and clearer) information about data plans and options, and provide robust training to its customer service employees -- so that consumers who have questions can get straight answers and prompt action.

Notably, Verizon Wireless customers themselves played a key role in bringing the “mystery fees” to light.  The settlement is a great example of what can happen when consumers speak up, and we’re proud to have played our part in making sure that the voices of many millions of individual consumers were heard. 

So, in addition to the money, what else do Verizon Wireless customers get out of the settlement? 

•    Improved customer service
•    Data blocks on request, if they want to avoid or limit data charges
•    Right to request a refund for unauthorized data charges, if they do not receive one
•    Close monitoring of data charges by a new Verizon Wireless Data Charge Task Force
•    Strong accountability and compliance monitoring by the FCC

This is just the latest in the Enforcement Bureau’s continuing effort on the consumer protection front.  We will monitor the company’s compliance going forward, and remain committed to standing with and for consumers.  So, consumers, if you need us, our lights are always on.

For more details, take a look at the press release, the Consumer Tip Sheet, or the settlement itself.

Posted in Consumers Enforcement Bureau

Enforcement Bureau Settles Case That Restores Nearly $22 Million to TRS Fund

Posted September 22nd, 2010 by Michele Ellison - Chief of Enforcement Bureau

As the result of a settlement negotiated by the Enforcement Bureau and released yesterday, Purple Communications, Inc., will pay around $22 million to the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) Fund.  TRS is a vital service that allows people with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate over the telephone – through an interpreter – with hearing people.  The settlement follows the FCC’s demand earlier this year that Purple restore millions of dollars to the fund for overbilling it in violation of FCC rules.  The issues under investigation included whether the company unlawfully offered financial incentives to inflate TRS usage and billables, and whether the company recovered not once but twice from the fund for business-related calls to or from Purple employees.  In addition to the payment to the TRS Fund, the settlement also requires Purple to adopt a detailed compliance plan to prevent future misconduct, and to pay $550,000 to the U.S. Treasury.

The action is a victory for consumers all the way around.  The settlement protects carriers and the general public from overpaying into the TRS Fund.  The $22 million paid back will directly offset what the fund will need in the future to pay for TRS service, and therefore what the public will need to pay to support it.  And, most important, the settlement ensures that the fund will be used for its intended purpose – providing affordable relay services for consumers with disabilities who need and want to communicate with hearing people.

As I said Monday when we announced the Consent Decree, we simply will not tolerate abuse of the TRS Fund.  The settlement with Purple strikes the right balance:  it requires full repayment of the TRS Fund and compels an overhaul of Purple’s business practices; at the same time, it enables Purple to continue providing vital relay services to individuals with hearing or speech disabilities.  We will remain vigilant in protecting the public trust -- the millions of Americans with hearing or speech disabilities deserve no less.

For more information visit the Enforcement Bureau page.

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The Problem with Pay-for-Play

Posted July 27th, 2010 by Michele Ellison - Chief of Enforcement Bureau

Yesterday, the Enforcement Bureau entered into a settlement with Univision Radio, Inc. to resolve serious allegations that station employees secretly accepted thousands of dollars in bribes to play the music of artists from the Univision Music Group (UMG) record label.  Federal law allows radio stations to accept payments for material they broadcast, but does not permit them to conceal that fact from the public.  The purpose of this law is to protect consumers from deceit – or, as the FCC has long explained, to ensure that listeners understand who is trying to persuade them.

In a companion action, another Univision company pled guilty to criminal charges filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  The Univision company admitted that UMG executives, employees and agents made illegal cash payments to radio station program managers from 2002 to 2006, in order to increase airplay of UMG recordings.  The coordinated actions of the federal government attacked both ends of the enterprise – DOJ’s action primarily addressed the record label that paid the bribes, while the FCC focused on the Univision radio stations that accepted them.

All told, Univision will pay $1 million to resolve the cases.  But the FCC settlement is about more than money.  Univision must also change its business practices, hire a Compliance Officer, and take other concrete steps to avoid future violations, so the music that secretly pays the most, no longer plays the most.

For the uninitiated, this type of “pay-for-play” scheme, called “payola,” is said to be as old as the music industry.  The word “payola” itself – a contraction of “pay” and “Victrola” (those old vintage record players) – underscores how long the practice has been around.  Indeed, Congress conducted hearings to investigate “pay for play” in broadcasting more than a half century ago, at a time when local radio had just begun playing rock ‘n’ roll, and when radio was about the only way for recording artists to reach a broad audience.

The FCC and DOJ aggressively investigated these payola allegations.  But in this age of iTunes, YouTube, and satellite radio, some might wonder why.

Well, first of all, it's the law.  Broadcasters must tell their listeners if they receive cash or gifts in exchange for playing certain music or airing other content.   At its core, this is about fairness and plain dealing.  And even with so many alternatives for artist exposure, recording artists tell us that having their music play on the radio is still critically important.  The fact that payola still exists underscores that some still believe it’s a beneficial way for artists to gain this exposure.

The bottom line, though, is that broadcasting fundamentally differs from other businesses.  In exchange for using the public’s airwaves, broadcasters must program their stations to serve their communities of license – in other words, to serve consumers of broadcast media in their local area.  Generally, how broadcasters fulfill this duty is up to them, but whether you're a listener, an artist, a broadcaster, or a record label, everyone ought to agree that deceiving the public is not in the public's best interest.

Since the early days of radio, many broadcasters have taken steps to ensure that their listeners are properly informed.  Our coordinated enforcement actions make clear that we will not hesitate to act when they fail to do so. While this settlement was about protecting the public trust in our Nation's airwaves, we will continue to bring the same vigor to protecting consumers across all communications services.

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