Many of us constantly receive annoying calls from telemarketers, in spite of being on the do-not-call list. Clearly, the law is not working. I suppose it shouldn’t be all that surprising that companies that skirt laws selling dubious products and services would have little regard for this law, especially because it’s not well-enforced. And it’s even more annoying when these calls and messages come to our cellphones, which we pay for.
During the past few weeks, I started getting calls several times a day on my cellphone from a single number, 937-534-2092. When I picked up, I either got a recording asking me to hold for an important message, without indicating who was calling, or I’d get silence for a few moments and then a hang-up. This had all the signs of an automatic calling system used by telemarketers and debt collectors.
When I Googled the phone number, I found it belonged to GE Money, part of GE Capital, a division of General Electric Company. I found scores of online comments from others who have been receiving these calls from the same number. Perhaps I’m naive, but while we expect such behavior from shady companies, who would have thought a company such as General Electric would engage in this? It turned out I was very naive.
The next time I received a call, I waited almost five minutes for someone to answer. The caller asked, in broken English, if I was Raymond. Clearly it was a wrong number, and I asked her to stop calling my number. She hung up on me, but I did stop getting the calls.
GE Money’s business is issuing credit cards for Amazon and other companies and providing extended time payments to customers of major retailers. Apparently the calls I received were attempting to collect on a past-due payment.
According to CustomerServiceScoreboard.com, a website that rates companies’ customer service quality, GE Money Bank is No. 420 out of the 449 companies rated, with an overall score of 18.56 out of a possible 200. This score rates GE Money Bank customer service and customer support as “terrible.”
Complaints included payments not being recorded, leading to huge late charges and terrible customer service, including rude operators and being hung up on when trying to resolve their issues.
You can’t blame GE for trying to collect on late payments, but you can blame it for these constant cellphone calls that border on harassment. And it turns out that it is breaking the law when it calls cellphones without authorization.
I spoke with San Diego lawyer Pat Lester, of the law firm Lester and Associates, who specializes in this area. He explained that what I experienced is just the tip of the iceberg. He said many large companies, including Barclays Bank, Sallie Mae, JPMorgan Chase Bank, Chase Auto Finance, Discover Card, CitiMortgage, Capital One, HSBC and American Express, have been sued for violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. These calls can be from debt collectors, sales solicitations and banks trying to sell you their services, as well as text messages offering you services and contests.
Lester explained that a consumer debt collector is allowed to call a debtor at home using an auto-dialer. However, they are in violation of the law if an auto-dialer is used when making a collection call to a cellphone belonging to the debtor or any third party, or making a call to any telephone number not belonging to the debtor (as in my case), unless the debt collector has the prior written consent of the recipient. (Other calls using artificial or prerecorded voice messages, including those that do not use auto-dialer, may not be made to home phone numbers, with a few exceptions such as an emergency, having a prior relation and for noncommercial purposes.)
If the caller violates the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, there’s a penalty of $500 for each call, and if the caller knows he is violating the law, as most do, the penalty is $1,500. While you don’t always know if the call is coming from an automatic dialer, one hint is if you answer the phone and there’s a moment of silence while the call is being switched to a collector.
An auto-dialer is a computer with software that automatically dials numbers from a list or sequentially. When someone answers the phone and speaks, the computer immediately delivers the call to a collector in a call center. If all of the collectors are on calls, the call terminates or asks the person to wait.
So why would a company employ a technology that exposes it to huge penalties? Because it works, they can get away with it, and it’s the cost of doing business.
I asked Dori Abel, a spokeswoman for GE Capital, about these calls and whether she believed that GE had violated the law in calling me.
She replied, “The law allows calls to be made to cellphones to collect a debt when consent is provided by an account holder.” She went on to say that, “Once you notified us that your telephone was being called in error, we took immediate actions to cease the calls. It was determined that a number was transposed in our records causing you to receive unintentional calls instead of an accountholder. We did not intend to call your cellphone (there is no benefit for us in calling an incorrect number), and we are sorry for the inconvenience.”
So what does Lester think? “Intent only relates to whether or not the fine is $500 (unintentional) or $1,500 (intentional) for each call.”
I forwarded this legal opinion to Abel at GE and asked for her comment about the company being in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but she declined to answer.
So what can you do if you receive such calls? Save any messages left on your phone and ask your carrier for an itemized bill that will list the calls. You can file a complaint at http://www.fcc.gov/guides/unwanted-telephone-marketing-calls. This link at Lester’s website also provides helpful information about the law and your recourse: http://lesterlaw.com/helpful-information.
Baker is the author of “From Concept to Consumer” published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker’s blog is http://blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com.