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A massive telemarketing robocalling campaign called millions of consumers every day with sales pitches for cruises disguised as political surveys, the Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday. The total number of calls involved in the campaign was “over a billion,” an agency spokesman said.

The FTC and 10 state attorneys general allege that a network of firms placed automated calls designed to keep the consumer on the line with the promise of a free cruise for taking a survey. Consumers who did were connected to a live telemarketer working for Caribbean Cruise Line.

In a typical automated call, recipients heard a recorded message from “John from Political Opinions of America.”

“You’ve been carefully selected to participate in a short 30-second research survey and for participating you’ll receive a free two-day cruise for two people to the Bahamas, courtesy of one of our supporters,” the message said, according to the FTC complaint. “Gratuities and a small port tax will apply. To begin the survey, please press 1 now. To decline the survey and be removed from our list, press 9. Thank you.”

The “port tax” cost $59, consumers later learned, and operators went on to sell pre-boarding cruise excursions, enhanced accommodations and other travel packages.

The campaign ran from October 2011 to July 2012, and averaged 12 to 15 million calls daily, the FTC said.

Political calls are exempt from the Do Not Call list and federal laws ban automated robocalls, but the FTC said in a blog post that tacking a political survey onto a marketing call did not shield the call from the rules.

The FTC and 10 state attorneys general sued Caribbean Cruise Line and a series of smaller firms; most agreed to settle without admitting wrongdoing. Caribbean Cruise Line agreed to pay a civil penalty of $7.73 million, though the penalty will be suspended after the firm pays $500,000.

Caribbean Cruise Line did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The complaint also alleges that the calls were placed using a technique known as CallerID spoofing. The number that appeared on recipients’ phones when the calls were placed had been altered to obscure the identity of the caller. A lawsuit involving a separate company that enabled the technique is ongoing, the FTC said.

“Marketers who know the ropes understand you can’t steer clear of the do not call rules by tacking a political or survey call onto a sales pitch,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Anyone who assists in making illegal calls is also on the hook.”

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  • Never_Speechless

    Now they calling and saying its “Grand Bahama Cruise Line” and saying the company calling with surveys is “Questions and Answers of America”

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