Few things in life are as annoying as persistent phone calls from telemarketers and debt collectors.
They can be relentless. The calls are also often made in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act or the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
That’s where Nathaniel Clark comes in.
Clark, a litigation attorney with The Law Offices of Scott Warmuth in the City of Industry, has built a practice on protecting consumers against these abusive calls.
“Sometimes a stern letter from an attorney will stop the calls,” he said. “When a company refuses to stop making the calls I will go to federal court, file a federal complaint against the business and litigate the case.”
When a consumer has made it clear that they don’t want to be called, companies need to listen. Those that don’t can be subject to heavy fines ranging from $500 to $1,500 per call.
“The courts can triple the damages from $500 a call to $1,500 per call if they can prove negligence where a company should know that they violated the law,” Clark said.
But legal maneuvers aside, the calls keep coming.
“They are beyond prevalent,” Clark said. “They are invasive and most companies continue to use auto-dialers even though they are not in compliance with federal laws. In some cases debt collectors will make incidental changes to their software or equipment in an attempt to bypass the law.”
The idea, he said, is to make the calls appear as if they contain some level of human interaction. So instead of a call automatically being routed to someone’s phone, it might first pop up as an icon on a telemarketer’s phone system. Then the telemarketer routes the call forward.
“Nothing really changed,” Clark said. “They are getting calls under the guise of human interaction, but it’s still an automated call.”
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) includes a variety of provisions. It requires that solicitors maintain a company-specific “do-not-call” list of consumers who asked not to be called. So they must honor the National Do Not Call Registry.
The TCPA additionally prohibits solicitations to residences and private cellphones that use an artificial voice or a recording. It also requires that solicitors provide their name, the name of the person or business on whose behalf the call is being made and a telephone number or address at which that person or business may be contacted.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from a consumer.
So what constitutes an invasion of privacy?
The answer is somewhat fluid, but generally speaking it’s when a company calls someone repeatedly throughout the day or evening in an attempt to sell solar panels, auto insurance or any other product or service. It also applies to debt collection.
“Federal law says you can’t do that,” Clark said. “It can really add up over time. If you are getting calls all day long that takes time away from what you’re doing, and it can be distracting.”
Sometimes the calls move beyond mere annoyance.
The FCC and a coalition of more than 30 tech companies and telecoms — including Apple, AT&T and Comcast — recently formed a Robocall Strike Force that’s focused on combating automated phone calls. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler offered his views on the issue at the Aug. 19 launch of the strike force in Washington, D.C.
“Robocalls are a scourge,” Wheeler said. “It’s the No. 1 complaint that we hear from consumers at the commission. We receive more than 200,000 complaints a year. Americans are right to be fed up with robocalls. They are an invasion of privacy, and this scourge is rife with fraud and identity theft.”
Wheeler is asking all of the major phone companies to develop an action plan that would provide consumers with robocall-blocking options.
“That is actually very important,” Clark said. “There are certain calls that a lawyer might not be able to help you with — calls that come from overseas scammers or illegal operations that don’t operate within the confines of the law where they are posing as the IRS or some other agency. They are engaging in criminal activity and need to be stopped. That’s a whole separate subset from legitimate companies that are not acting criminally but are still violating civil laws.”
Clark said consumers can seek relief from overzealous telemarketers — and even calls for debts that they actually owe — by simply telling the company they don’t want to receive the calls anymore. They can do that verbally, he said, but it’s far more effective to send a letter or email to the company, clearly expressing their wishes.
When that doesn’t work, Clark gets involved.
“They will sometimes drop the issue altogether and move on to an easier target,” he said. “I have clients who have gotten calls for debts they don’t even owe. That can really affect your life because you don’t know what a debt collector will do. They could file a lawsuit or put incorrect information on your credit report. That can create emotional distress.”