Harassing phone solicitations are among the top consumer complaints in America today. “It’s scary. It’s gotten to the point where it’s dangerous to answer your phone,” says Ethan Garr, an expert on illegal telemarketing practices.
It’s a daily barrage of aggravating phone calls by an army of anonymous peddlers. They’re not only annoying; they operate illegally. And, they make billions, yes billions, of unwanted phone calls hawking everything from hearing aids to discount cruises. Illegal telemarketers are rarely caught. And, because of the flood of violations, the government can’t stop them. So they brazenly defy the law with little fear of prosecution.
The sales pitches are familiar to everyone: “Please hold while we transfer you to the cruise line for the free cruise.”
“This (medical) device will give you the peace of mind that you need and allow you to feel safe and make sure you never feel alone.”
“This is a call regarding your timeshare and maintenance fees.”
Illegal practices, whether on a cell phone or landline, include the use of pre-recorded sales calls. If a telemarketer ignores the Federal Trade Commission’s ‘Do Not Call’ list, that’s a violation. And, if a telemarketer uses a phony Caller ID, that’s illegal too.
“Each of the operations that we have shut down in recent years have been responsible for sending out billions of illegal calls,” says Janice Kopec who is a Staff Attorney at the Federal Trade Commission.
“It’s an epidemic. It is absolutely huge,” says telemarketing expect Ethan Garr. Garr is an executive with TelTech, a New Jersey computer science lab. TelTech develops technology designed to battle intrusive calls.
“Telemarketers are making these calls not to annoy you, not to waste your time. They want to get to your money,” Garr says. “They want to get your identity. They want to hurt you because that’s how they put money in their pockets. It’s an awful way to make a living in my opinion but that’s why they’re doing it.”
Tucked away in the federal telecommunications statutes is an obscure provision that gives consumers the right to fight back. If you are the victim of illegal telemarketing you can take the offending caller to court and seek damages. So, KRQE News 13 embarked on a year-long investigation to take on the anonymous phone peddlers. Our investigation began by collecting the evidence. Step one, finding out who are these guys?
(3) PRIVATE RIGHT OF ACTION A person or entity may, if otherwise permitted by the laws or rules of court of a State, bring in an appropriate court of that State
(A) an action based on a violation of this subsection ofr the regulations prescribed under this subsection to enjoin such violation,
(B) an action to recover for actual monetary loss from such a violation, or to receive $500 in damages for each
such violation, whichever is greater, or
(C) both such actions.
If the court finds that the defendant willfully or knowingly violated this subsection or the regulations prescribed under this subsection, the court may, in its discretion, increase the amount of the award to an amount equal to not more than 3 times the amount available under subparagraph (B) of this paragraph.
Among the dozens of illegal telemarketing calls we researched was one last year from a caller selling solar systems. We asked the caller, “Do you know how the company got my number?” Their response, Um, I don’t.”
A phone solicitor touting insurance also didn’t know how she got our phone number. “I wouldn’t be able to help you there. I can help you find health insurance,” the telemarketer said.
A telemarketer selling medical alarms said he couldn’t provide a call back number. “I don’t even know the number. I’m just an inbound call center only. Like, I called you. I’ve never had anybody call me,” the caller claimed. He identified himself as, “Alan Greenspan.”
Last year, we received an unsolicited sales pitch from an anonymous caller hawking funeral insurance. “It’s a life insurance plan and it is designed to cover all your final expenses,” the telemarketer said. The caller set up a meeting with an Albuquerque insurance agent who said his company hired the out-of-state telemarketing firm to drum up sales leads.
It was a telemarketing call from someone selling timeshares that led to a face-to-face meeting at a local restaurant with some traveling salesmen from Oklahoma. At the meeting, the timeshare peddlers denied knowing the name of the telemarketing firm that called us.
It took us one year to uncover the identities of the phone solicitors that called us. We were able to document the backgrounds of nearly a dozen illegal telemarketers peddling everything from solar panels to vacation packages.
Our evidence included stacks of documents, audio recordings and undercover video. In an effort to fight back, we took our research to Santa Fe attorney Sid Childress whose specialty is taking on illegal telemarketers.
“I’m not in the business of asking people to apologize. I’m in the business of making people accept responsibility by paying what they owe,” Childress says. “I think the only thing that would stop them would be to hit their pocketbook. I mean, that seems to be what they understand.”
Using the evidence uncovered in our investigation, Childress filed, on our behalf, 13 lawsuits in Albuquerque’s State District Court. Our complaints alleged the telemarketing firms violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the New Mexico Unfair Practices Act. We asked a judge to impose monetary damages.
“I think the goal for me as the attorney is that people accept some responsibility for illegal phone calls. If they’re not going to stop the phone calls, if they’re not going to stop doing business that way, I guess the goal is to make them accept responsibility under the statute which is, pay money,” Childress says.
Two telemarketers that we sued, Higher Response Marketing and Golden Ticket Getaways did not respond to the lawsuits we filed in court. Judges in both cases ordered the out-of-state telemarketing firms to each pay a $10,000 default judgment, which remains uncollected today.
- Golden Ticket Getaways Judgment
- Higher Response Marketing Judgment
- Higher Response Marketing 2007 Citation
- Higher Response Marketing 2009 Citation
Nine telemarketing firms that we sued settled their cases out of court. The cases against two additional firms are still pending. To date, we have collected $50,400 from telemarketing firms engaged in abusive sales practices. All the settlement funds we collected will be donated to charities and non-profit organizations.
So what do we allege the telemarketing firms did wrong?
“They called you in the first place. They used machines to call you, auto dialers, and pre-recorded messages. Plenty of them use fake Caller ID numbers. And then when you answered they wouldn’t identify themselves,” Sid Childress says.
Our investigation concludes with telemarketing firms shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to settle our lawsuits. But it’s not about the money. It is about holding illegal telemarketers accountable.
What’s the message our investigation sends to the telemarketing industry? “Do not call Larry Barker,” Sid Childress says.