You Can Make Big Money from Those Annoying Telemarketers

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AT&T (T) is one of the most recent big companies to settle a class action lawsuit filed by consumers alleging violations of a little-known federal law that can turn annoyance into cash. AT&T agreed to pay $45 million to resolve a case in which it was accused of making unauthorized automated calls.

Who hasn’t gotten an annoying robocall, sales pitch or text spam? They come at inconvenient times, pitch you something you don’t want and just plain waste your time.

Regardless of whether it was a telemarketer, a bank or bill collector, there’s a chance that what you found annoying could also make you money.

“Every call or text made without your permission is worth a minimum of $500, and if it’s intentional, which 99 percent are, each one is worth $1,500,” said attorney Billy Howard of the Morgan & Morgan law firm. “These unwanted texts are one of the biggest invasions of our privacy. … The senator who wrote the Telephone Consumer Protection Act called them the ‘scourge of modern civilization.’ ”

Maybe Money in Your Pocket

“Don’t think ‘annoying ring,'” he said. “Think ‘ka-ching, ka-ching.'”

When Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, it put a big part of the enforcement role in the hands of consumers. The idea was that if telemarketers crossed the lines (there are a lot of rules they have to play by, including when, how, and by whom calls can be placed) they would be penalized $500 to $1,500 for every time they did — and those fines were to be paid to the affected consumers. But the customers have to speak up.

That 1991 law — and consumers — got a big boost last year with provisions that further restrict companies about when they can call you. Even companies that you’ve done business with before are not allowed to solicit you unless you’ve explicitly provided consent. Some typical violations:

  • You get calls for someone else who might have had your number previously.
  • You are accused of owing money that you don’t.
  • You’ve told the business to stop calling, but it won’t.
  • Calls before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. local time
  • Calls to consumers who are on the Do Not Call Registry and didn’t give permission to be solicited. (The registry does not limit calls by political organizations, charities or phone surveyors.)

The main way to enforce the violations is to be on the Do Not Call list and file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, and to make money through lawsuits. That potential has given way to a cottage industry of law firms that aggressively file these types of class action lawsuits.

Banks Have Paid Out Millions

This summer, Capital One (COF) settled what was believed to be the largest ever TCPA class action lawsuit, agreeing to pay more than $75 million for allegedly calling customers’ cell phones using an autodialer. The TCP Act frowns on auto-dialed calls that don’t involve humans. Bank of America (BAC) paid out $32 million last year to settle a half dozen TCPA lawsuits. Other lawsuits have been aimed at professional sports teams, including the Los Angeles Clippers andBuffalo Bills, and businesses of all sorts that made allegedly unauthorized calls or texts.

The Morgan & Morgan law firm has a helpful graphic that explains what indiscretions make a call or text eligible for TCPA litigation.

If you get a questionable call or text, it’s not hard to search the web to see if others have gotten it, too. If a lot of people have, chances are a lawsuit has been started and you can climb aboard.

Another option is a cellphone app called PrivacyStar, which helps users flag and block sketchy calls and texts. It also simplifies filing complaints.

“You’d be blown away to know how often consumers get robocalls on their cell phone after 9 p.m. even though they’re on the Do Not Call list — all of these actions are illegal under the TCPA,” said Jeff Stalnaker, CEO of PrivacyStar. “Our users alone file over 50,000 complaints with the FTC each month related to Do Not Call, FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act) and TCPA potential violations. Around 6,000 of those are for text spam. Unfortunately, the amount of illegal calls is on the rise, and it seems that the majority of Americans are unaware of the rights they have to defend themselves.”

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