Annoyed by robocalls to your cellphone you can fight back – houston chronicle

The Federal Trade Commission created the “Do Not Call” list 15 years ago to stop unwanted phone calls from telemarketers, updating the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act that restricted unwanted commercial calls to both landlines and cellphones. The agency also put tighter restrictions on calls placed to cellphones, devised at a time when cellphone plans had limited calling times and added hefty charges if limits were exceeded.

Telemarketers were prohibited from using automatic dialing systems phones and computer-generated voices to call cellphones or leave pre-recorded messages without express written consent. And consumers could revoke their consent to receive calls on their cellphones, including calls from debt collectors.

But the pace of the robocalls has only accelerated, as technology made it cheap for banks, insurance companies, retailers and others to use automatic dialers and pre-recorded messages and hope that consumers press “1” for more information. YouMail, an app that blocks robocalls, estimates that each American adult received an average of 100 robocalls to their cellphones and landlines last year.

Stevens, who lives in Bonham near the Oklahoma border, agreed to be contacted by Conn’s through her cellphone when she made her purchase. But she withdrew that consent —a key factor in cases like this — by telling company representatives to stop calling and writing the same message on the memo line of her checks. Nothing worked, she said, until she hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the Texas attorney general’s office.

Michael A. Harvey, a lawyer for Conn’s, disputed allegations that the retailer violated the federal telecommunications law, but because of the litigation, would not provide details of Stevens’ account. He added that Conn’s strives to create a positive experience for its customers, from the sales floor to when they pay off their accounts.

Daniel Ciment, the Houston lawyer who is representing Stevens, is planning to ask an arbitrator for $2.8 million in damages, $1,500 —the maximum damage award —for each of the calls to Steven’s cell phone. It’s not unrealistic, he said, pointing to an arbitrator’s decision earlier this year that Conn’s must pay a Tennessee consumer $311,000 for 424 calls the retailer made in a four-month period after the consumer told Conn’s to quit calling his cellphone.

Ciment is a small player in a cottage industry of lawyers that file these consumer protection claims, which can generate significant fees, particularly in class-action suits involving hundreds or thousands of consumers. Unlike many other types of civil cases, the lawyers don’t have to prove damages for their clients to collect; the only need to show that telemarketers made unlawful calls.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. While technology has made it easy for telemarketers to make the robocalls, technology has also made harder to trace the calls. Software, for example, can make calls appear to be coming from across town when they’re being place across the country — or on the other side of the world. In addition, telemarketers have moved operations offshore, which puts them out of reach of U.S. law.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says these and other factors have led lawyers to target legitimate U.S. businesses rather than the “unscrupulous scam telemarketers” that the consumer protection law was meant to police. The lawsuits, which a few years ago were concentrated in just a handful of jurisdictions, have been filed in at least 42 states, according to the chamber, and given rise to a class of “professional plaintiffs” who are recruited by law firms and make a living by receiving phone calls and filing claims.