When Debt Collector Robocalls Hijack Your Cell Phone

Heather Waites got a call on her new cell phone a few months ago from a number she didn't recognize.

When Waites answered, she heard an automated message from a debt collection company, saying they were looking for someone she had never heard of. When she told them they had the wrong number, the message said, "I'll remove this number."

But then the company called again. And again. And again. And again.

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Waites said the same automated message called her cell phone two to three times practically every day with the same computer-generated voice -- 204 calls in total in just a few months.

But Waites is a 17-year-old high school student in Belleview, Florida, who has no debt. And, to make matters worse, she said the automated message never asked for her, but would always say, "can I speak to Marcie Rodriguez?"

"We've never heard of her," Waites said. "And the calls were coming in when I was in class."

That automated message was a robocall, a pre-recorded message companies use to call hundreds of thousands of people at a time through computer software.

But Waites said the message never gave her a chance to opt out. The robocall she received mechanically asked for Marcie Rodriquez, and then only gave the option to "press 1 if you are Marcie Rodriguez."

So for a while, Waites did what most people do, which was ignore the calls, and often, she said she would just shut her phone off. But the breaking point came when her grandfather was in the hospital and her mother Patricia couldn't reach her.

"It was getting annoying because I would be at the nursing home all day and I would want to contact her to let her know what's going on, what's happening and her phone would be off," Patricia Waites said. "How else could I get a hold of her? Her phone was shut off."

So when the debt collection company called her daughter's cell phone for the 168th time, Patricia Waites decided to do something she didn't want to do - lie, press 1 and say that she was Marcie Rodriguez. When she did that, Waites said she was transferred to a real life person, who agreed to take her number off the company's call list and then hung up.

"But they still kept calling after we told them that we're not Marcie Rodriguez," Heather Waites said.

So the family got a lawyer. Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a federal law that restricts telephone solicitation, unwanted robocalls to cell phones are illegal and companies that place these calls can be held liable.

Sixty-eight percent of cell phone owners receive at least some unwanted sales calls, according to Pew Research, with a quarter of them reporting that it happens several times a week, and 34 percent say they get calls for collection of debt they don't owe.

"Every single day across the country, people are getting hundreds of thousands of calls for debts that they don't owe, and that's illegal," said attorney Billy Howard, the founder of the Consumer Protection Department at Tampa-based law firm Morgan and Morgan. "It's a $500 minimum violation for every unwanted phone call to your cell phone, and could be worth up to $1,500 per call."

But Diversified Consultants, Inc., the company behind the robocalls to Waites' cell phone, said hers was a case of human error.

"We keep records of everything, and although there is human error, we do our best every single day to make sure things like that do not happen," said Gordon Beck, the COO of Diversified Consultants, Inc.

Beck admits there are mistakes, but said it's hard to tell between landline numbers and cell phone numbers. Wrong number calls often stem from cell phone numbers being recycled from person to person, he said, but they are a tiny fraction of the total calls.

"We make anywhere from 1 to 1.3 million calls a day," he said.

And Waites was not an isolated case. There have been reports of people around the country complaining about the same issue from hundreds of other robocalling companies.

"There are thousands of people just in the state of Florida," Howard said. "There are hundreds of thousands of people who are going through this exact same thing, and they just don't know their rights."

But even when those badgering calls do get the right number, the calls to cell phones are still illegal under the federal law once the recipient asks for them to stop, and suing robocalling companies for unwanted solicitations has become more popular.

"A lot of people are learning that the TCPA is a cash cow for lawsuits and the statute of limitations is not 12 months," Beck said. "These go back to when collection agencies had no idea we were involved in the TCPA."

He argues that the TCPA, which has been on the books since 1991, is anachronistic, and that calling cell phones should be permitted since more and more people are giving up their landlines.

As for Heather Waites, she and her family are suing Diversified Consultants for the unwanted calls to her cell phone, and are hoping to turn this annoying experience into extra money.

"That feels great and now to find out you can get $500-$1,500 per phone call, well, we're both excited," said Patricia Waites.

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