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Published March 06 2012

Presidential robo calls flood North Dakota phones

BISMARCK – North Dakotans complaining about an automated phone call asking about their preferred presidential candidate the day before and on the same day as Super Tuesday caucuses don’t need to report it to the state.

Parrell Grossman, director of the state attorney general’s Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division, received multiple calls himself and is already on the case.

The call comes from a 703 Virginia area code and wants to know which presidential candidate the caller prefers. The automated message gives no indication of which organization is behind the call, but multiple comments posted on social media on Tuesday pointed to Ron Paul supporters.

A Monday post on www.dailypaul.com said it was doing a “RoboBOMB” in North Dakota, though it was not clear if the site was behind the calls. The site says it is a “community website with no official affiliation with Ron Paul or his Presidential Committee.”

A message sent through the website for comment was not immediately returned nor was a phone message left for rp2012.org, which is mentioned in the post.

On Wednesday, Michael Nystrom, editor of www.dailypaul.com, said he didn't know anything about the robo calls.

"I heard something, but am afraid I wouldn't be much help," he said.

Ron Paul Deputy Campaign Manager Dimitri Kesari said the robocalls are not affiliated with the campaign.

“I know the law very well. We’re only doing live operator calls in the state,” he said Tuesday in Fargo, where Paul spoke during district caucusing.

Brad Boyd of Bismarck said his family received robo calls on three of their cellphones Monday night, including the phone for his 13-year-old son.

“Three calls within a few minutes to three mobile numbers in the household is excessive,” he said.

Terry Short of West Fargo received calls on his personal and work cellphones and said he didn’t need the “nonsense.”

“I thought calls like that were already illegal in North Dakota?” he said.

Grossman, of Consumer Protection, confirmed the calls are illegal. He received the call on his personal and work cellphones and said his office was already working to track down who made the calls.

Robocalls for political purposes are illegal in North Dakota and subject to fines up to $2,000 per violation, Grossman said. However, finding out the responsible party isn’t always easy, he said.

“A lot of times, they lease it (the phone number) to someone who then leases it to someone else who may lease it to someone else,” Grossman said. “It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.”

Even when they do find the final destination of the phone number, the party may claim someone else spoofed the number, he said.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll ultimately be able to determine who was making these calls and contact that entity, but we won’t be certain until we’ve issued one or more subpoenas,” he said.

Grossman said there isn’t anything to suggest the calls are affiliated with Paul’s campaign.

Credible campaigns generally are aware of North Dakota’s regulations and will find out in advance what’s permitted, he said.

On Facebook, many North Dakotans were wondering how the robocaller had their cellphone number. Grossman said he didn’t know for sure, but it’s possible calls were being made at random to any sequence of numbers in the 701 area code.

“It seems like random dialing to me … That’s my speculation. They have no idea of the identity of the telephone subscriber,” he said. “They’re just calling all landlines and cellphone numbers.”

Grossman said North Dakotans don’t need to report the calls to his office because he’s aware of the problem. If his office identities the source of the calls, they would be able to obtain records of the number of calls initiated that way, he said.

There is no way to avoid robocalls, Grossman said. Some entities do it because they aren’t aware of North Dakota’s law that prohibits the calls. Others don’t care whether the calls are illegal, he said.

“So it really is just impossible to stop these calls,” he said.

Grossman said late Tuesday that his office was making progress tracking the phone number, but he wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to the bottom of it.

Forum reporter Kristen Daum contributed to this story. Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.

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