Scraper Pro, Phone Broadcast Club, and IbuzzPro:
How to Become a
Major Nuisance in Two Easy Steps
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Internet-based telemarketing schemes that promise great rewards may pose a threat to Web site operators who post their telephone numbers. In February 2010, I began receiving unsolicited, prerecorded, commercial calls from a telemarketer named "Bob" who promised that I could "get unlimited free leads . . . and have your prospects calling you instead of you having to chase them" by going to his Web site, leads222.com. Since that time, I have received many more calls with the following characteristics:
- My caller ID display shows a telephone number but rarely identifies who is calling.
- Online reverse telephone directories indicate that the number is an unlisted land line.
- Most callers give only their first name.
- None of the callers indicate up front what product they are trying to sell.
- Most messages provide two options such as "Press 2 to learn more, or press 9 be removed."
- Most callers who choose the first option are asked to leave their name and number and/or to go to the caller's Web site for further information.
From February through April, I received automated calls appearing to come from 206-202-2115, 206-203-2524, 216-222-9144, 206-203-3823, 206-333-0099, 206-333-0362, 206-337-5717, 206-337-8922, 206-337-9022, 206-338-7698, 206-338-7931, 206-339-4237, 206-426-1162, 206-426-2468, 206-350-9261, 206-600-4736, 206-600-6109, 206-666-3214, 206-666-3215, 209-820-5444, 214-614-8164, 303-495-2658, 303-997-1712, 313-263-3570, 323-386-2531, 323-386-4756, 512-532-7111, 516-368-3375, 702-759-3850, 877-213-9662, 877-213-9662, 951-262-3309, and 977-692-6633. Many of these numbers are maintained by Laser Voice Mail, a service of Seattle-based International Telcom Ltd, which provides free voicemail accounts whose users are difficult or impossible to identify. The calls are actually placed and delivered through Internet-based broadcasting sites with software that enables the caller's voicemail number to appear in the recipient's caller ID display.
|Scraper Pro software, pictured to the right, enables users to search the Internet for telephone numbers that are related to keywords they choose. To conduct searches, users check off the search engines they wish to use, insert the keywords, select from various other parameters, and start the software. The end result is a list that can be downloaded to make a list of telephone prospects. Phone Broadcast Club is an Internet-based delivery system that enables members to upload telephone lists, input the recorded message, and select how often numbers are dialed, what number should appear in the caller ID display, and whether (for an extra fee) to scrub out numbers on the FTC Do Not Call List. Since my number is on the FTC list, it is obvious that none of the people who called me utilized it.|
Sellers of these marketing systems offer detailed instructions and advice as well as recorded messages. The initial cost depends upon the package chosen. Scraper Pro appears to cost at least $500. The Phone Broadcast Club appears to cost about $125 to join plus an additional $25 per month and a price-per-minute that works out to about 1-3¢ per call. Payment is made through the Internet, using a credit card or PayPal. Several marketers told me that new buyers can recover their initial investment by making one sale and that money from the next few sales is shared with the person through whom they made their initial purchase. I was not able to determine whether the system resembles a typical multilevel marketing network or whether the sharing is done in some other way. Some callers said that they did not know the identity of the person from whom they made their initial purchase. Phone Broadcast Club training videos state that member get free access to telephone lists.
When the volume of such calls became annoying, I began leaving my name and number so that I could talk with a live person. When the live calls came, I found that their area code usually differed from the area code of the automated call. After considerable investigation, I learned that most of the callers were trying to market Internet-based systems that included Scraper Pro (or Scraper Pro Gold) and Phone Broadcast Club, but a few broadcast their calls through a company called IbuzzPro. My goals in talking with them were to understand what they were selling and to find out which people or companies were ultimately responsible for the nuisance. I also advised them to remove my telephone number from their system and found that most did so, but some did not. When I described how many calls I had received, some were apologetic and said that I was not the only person who had complained. However, one person who promised to remove my number from his database continued to call and another actually had the gall to suggest that if I didn't want any more calls, I should take down my Web site.
Several callers told me that Scraper Pro and Phone Broadcast Club were developed and are owned by Peter Wolfing, who has been involved with multilevel marketing for many years. The parent company for Wolfing's operations is New-York-based Multiplex Systems. After I located them. I reported my experience to the North Carolina Attorney General's office, which asked Multiplex Systems for a response. To my delight, an attorney representing the company replied that the company upgraded its programs so that people who do not wish to receive calls will be removed from its overall calling system by pressing a designated telephone key. That way, the lawyer said, opting out from any of the automated calls will result in having the recipient's number blocked from receiving calls from all marketers using the system. I subsequently learned that in March 2010, IBuzzPro had placed my main number on its "Master Do Not Call List" in response to my asking callers to have this done.
I also complained to the Better Business Bureau that International Telcom was abetting the marketing scheme by providing anonymous voice-mail numbers to take messages for intrusive telemarketers who are pretending to use the numbers to make the calls. The company replied that it can't stop the calls because they are not being placed from the numbers. I replied that it could establish terms of service that could address the abuses, but it expressed no interest in doing so.
What's Wrong with This Picture?
People thinking of marketing Scraper Pro and the Phone Broadcast Club should consider at least two things. One is how much of a nuisance they wish to become. The other is whether or not it represents a good income opportunity.
Few people wish to get unsolicited sales calls from strangers. In 2008, the FTC announced that more than 157 million Americans had listed their numbers in the FTC's Do Not Call Registry. It is illegal to place unsolicited sales calls to residential numbers on the list unless the caller has an established business relationship with the recipient. In September 2009, additional rules were issued about the delivery of prerecorded sales messages by automatic dialers. The rules say that even if a business relationship exists, it is illegal to call a residence without the owner's written permission. Telemarketers who transmit prerecorded messages to consumers who have not agreed in writing to accept such messages can be fined up to $16,000 per call. In announcing the new rules, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz noted that "American consumers have made it crystal clear that few things annoy them more than the billions of commercial telemarketing robocalls they receive every year."
Nearly all business-to-business calls are exempt from the FTC's telemarketing rule. (The only exception is for retail sales of nondurable office or cleaning supplies.) Callers told me that ScraperPro is designed to gather only business listings. However, there is no foolproof way to exclude residential numbers. I also suspect that Scraper Pro and Phone Broadcast Club do not have much of a market. How many businesses do you think will welcome recorded voices that offer money-making schemes?
In addition to complaining (as described above), I also removed or encrypted the phone numbers on my sites so that search engines and the harvesting software can't "see" them. Within a few weeks, the volume of calls sharply decreased and nearly all came in on my former Pennsylvania number that forwards to me in North Carolina. This number is not on any of my sites, but searching with Google located about 12,800 pages on other sites where it appears. The fact that my old number was called means that phone-gathering software can't tell the difference between obsolete numbers and current ones.
In September 2010, I began receiving calls promoting what the callers described as "cash gifting programs." In these, prospects are invited to pay a one-time amount for the privilege of entering the plan and receiving similar amounts from others. The payments are described as "gifts," which prospects are told are tax-free because gifts are not taxable. "Gifting" programs are illegal pyramid schemes in which the majority of people will lose money. Moreover, the receipts are not tax-free. It is true that most personal gifts are not taxable, but I believe that the Internal Revenue Service would either classify gifting programs as business opportunities in disguise or say that because the income is from an illegal activity, the proceeds must be reported as taxable income. When asked how they obtained my phone number and placed the call to me, callers described the use of scraping programs and/or lists obtained from the person who sold them the program. They had heard of Scraper Pro and Phone Broadcast Club, but said that they had used other software and broadcasting routes. Some people said they had obtained my number from a list they had purchased.
Phone Broadcast Club literature states that it is possible to make up to 3,000 calls per minute. As the number of people using Scraper Pro rises, it is likely to require more calls to make sales because some of the people will already have been called. People who use the same keywords are going to create similar or identical phone lists, which will mean that some people will be called repeatedly. It would be interesting to know how many calls are being made and how many it it typically takes to make a sale. One caller told me that he typically made 1,000 calls a day that resulted in 1-2 sales of the Scraper Pro/Phone Broadcast Club package. Another said that he had received 15 responses to 2,700 calls he placed, called back 5, and made one sale. If these numbers are typical, they indicate that for every sale, about a thousand call recipients are inconvenienced. I haven't obtained details about other list-accumulating and broadcasting systems such as Lead Net Pro, but it is clear that the activities I have described in this article could become a colossal nuisance on a par with spam.
In 2012, the FTC successfully sued two robocall operations that enabled telemarketers to place hundreds of millions of illegal prerecorded calls to consumers, including more than 20 million who had registered their phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. The prerecorded messages pitched a variety of products and services, including debt relief services, carpet and upholstery cleaning services, auto warranties, mortgage loan modification and foreclosure assistance, timeshares, satellite dish broadcasting, and burial insurance. One FTC suit charged that Brian Ebersole, Voice Marketing, Inc., and B2B Voice Broadcasting, Inc. provided clients with access to computers, telecommunications services, and automated dialers needed to make thousands of telephone calls simultaneously and deliver more than one million prerecorded messages each day. They also sold access to their voice broadcasting technology through intermediaries (resellers) that sold robocall services under various names. The other FTC suit targeted a reseller: JGRD, Inc. (d/b/a VoiceBlaze) and its principles, Charles Joseph Garis, Jr. and Randall Keith Delp. Both cases were settled with consent agreements under which defendants promised to pay a $10,000 penalty and to ensure that future broadcasts do not violate the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
If you receive unwanted sales calls from people who use Internet phone broadcasting to sell marketing systems, please complain to the FTC and the Better Business Bureau. If you receive any calls about "gifting programs," please get as much detail as you can and complaint to the FBI. If you have purchased any such system and conclude that the opportunity was exaggerated, please contact me to discuss what else can be done.
This article was revised on March 23, 2012.