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This Guy Sued a Spam Texter and Got $1,200 (and You Can Too)

Like many of us, David Weekly regularly gets robocalls and spam text messages. Unlike the rest of us, he made $1200 by suing a company that sent him a spam text..

On June 20th, he got yet another annoying spam text from an insurance company. Fed up, Weekly decided to do something about it. He went to the email domain included in the spam text, realized that a company in California was behind the text, and decided to sue it based on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act or TCPA.

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This federal law essentially makes it illegal to send spam texts or robocalls, and gives people who receive spam texts or calls an avenue to get between $500 and $1500 in damages, according to Anne Mitchell, a lawyer and CEO of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy (ISIPP). The law originally only covered phone calls and faxes (yep, it’s that old), but in 2015 the FCC declared that the TCPA also applies to text messages.

After Weekly identified who was behind the spam texts, he filed a lawsuit against the company, “a pretty good way to get somebody’s attention,” as he put it in a call with Motherboard.

Indeed, once it was served the lawsuit, the company reached out to Weekly in an attempt to settle the case out of court. Weekly, who stressed he is not a lawyer, went back and forth with the company, which eventually agreed to pay him $1,200. (Weekly asked Motherboard not to name the company, given that they apologized and agreed to send him damages.)

“It was just a kind of fun, surreal moment like, holy crap. I’m holding an actual check from a party who sent me a spam text message and apologized for it,” Weekly told Motherboard in a phone call.

Weekly’s case provides a blueprint for others to follow. But he actually went a step beyond what most people would need to do to get compensated for receiving spam texts and calls. In most cases, according to Mitchell, there’s no need for a lawsuit.

“In terms of going after these text message spammers, just the threat of filing that lawsuit is adequate, because they know you’ll win,” she said in a phone call with Motherboard. “They know, they broke the law, they knew they were breaking the law before they ever sent that text message to you. They are very well aware of the law. And they’re just counting on you not knowing.”

Motherboard spoke to Mitchell and Doc Compton, a consumer advocate who runs a project that helps people turn robocalls into cash. Both Mitchell and Compton sell kits with step-by-step instructions on how to demand spammers to pay damages. The kits include templates of demand letters to send to the spammers, based on real life cases where people were able to get paid damages.

And there have been plenty of people who have scored wins against scammers.

Based on what Mitchell and Compton told us, here’s our step by step guide on how to get damages from spammers. An important nore: this process will only work with marketing spammers, in other words, someone who’s trying to sell you something. It won’t work malicious scammers who try to steal your passwords or money, as those will be harder to track down and in any case won’t be swayed by a demand letter. This also will not work with spam from political campaigns. Mitchell said she does not recommend going after those as you’d go up after a “well-funded politician and political campaign who has lawyers on their staff who can respond to you all day long.”

Register your number to the Do Not Call Registry

The first step is to register your phone number on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry, which in theory should prevent marketers and spammers from calling or texting you. This obviously doesn’t guarantee you’ll never get spam again, as companies and individuals can just ignore the registry even though they are required by law to check it. But doing this is the first requirement for you to take some legal action against the spammer, according to Mitchell.

Registering your phone should just take a couple of minutes. Go to DoNotCall.gov and follow the instructions.

Report the spam message to the your carrier

This step is not necessary to get damages, but helps carriers block numbers used for spam and make life harder for spammers. There’s a number provided by all U.S. and UK carriers for you to report spam texts, it’s 7726, a number that aptly spells “SPAM.” The flow of the process may be different from carrier to carrier but in essence the idea is that you copy or forward the spam text to 7726, and then send the phone number that sent the spam text.

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Take screenshots of the spam messages

Document everything you can, screenshot the original text messages, and any follow-ups you get.

Try to find out who is behind the message or call

This is the crucial step of the process, and the one that’s harder to pull off. If you are able to figure out who called or texted you, then you know who to go after. Mitchell suggests going after the “low hanging fruit.”

In the case of spam texts, that means the spammers who have included a link you can follow, a phone number you can trace, or those who will just interact with you and give away information if you pretend you’re falling for their trap, according to Mitchell. Be careful with links, as those may actually be phishing. Use a tool like URL Scan, which will show you information about the website and also display a screenshot of it—without you ever having to actually visit it.

This step will be harder with robocalls, as there is no link to follow. Compton said the first step is to “pick up the phone and engage these callers, talk to them, play along, try to get the information out of them.” This takes a bit of practice, he said, but it can be done if you are willing to invest the time and lie to the spammers.

Picking up the phone, moreover, may force the spammers to spend money, as they usually have to pay and pay based on how long the call is, according to Compton.

“Doing that, if we all answered every robocall we got and kept them on the phone for a minute, for one month, we bankrupt every single telemarketer in the country,” Compton said.

Send the demand letter

If you play your cards right, and get a bit lucky, you will hopefully find an email address or a physical address. That’s  where you can send a demand letter. According to the instructions in Mitchell’s and Compton’s kits, what you’ll write in the letter is, essentially, the following:

  • The reason you are sending the letter (the unsolicited call or text.) 
  • State that your phone number was on the Do Not Call Registry.
  • Show that the number is on the registry by attaching a screenshot after you use the Verify Your Registration tool on the Do Not Call Registry website. 
  • Attach all relevant screenshots of spam texts or a list of spam calls with numbers and dates. 
  • Cite the TCPA, including copying and pasting the relevant language, which is:

“It shall be unlawful for any person within the United States, or any person outside the United States if the recipient is within the United States… to make any call {or text} (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) to any telephone number assigned to a paging service, cellular telephone service, specialized mobile radio service, or other radio common carrier service, or any service for which the called party is charged for the call, unless such call is made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.”

And:

“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…an action based on a violation of this subsection or the regulations prescribed under this subsection to enjoin such violation, 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 both such actions…”

  • Demand a payment of between $500 and $1,500, depending on whether there were one or more spam calls or texts.
  • And provide them a way to pay, such as a PayPal account.

To get a more detailed example of the letter, it may be worth purchasing the kits that Mitchell and Compton sell, or use one that’s public.

Good luck!

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