The phone calls just won’t stop. They begin 8:31 a.m. and end at 8:29 p.m. Alicia Figluizzi has been hounded by debt collectors for months. And every interruption, every menacing call, is a call for the wrong person. Those who call are looking for a woman named “Shaunda.” The calls have clogged her landline phone so much that she regrets ever getting one. But she feels she needs a landline, and dares not turn it off.
“I am job hunting and found that some people are offended when you provide your out-of-state phone number so I went with a landline,” Figluizzi, who lives in Pittsburgh, said. “Plus while looking for full-time work I am substitute teaching and do not want the sub services to have access to my personal phone.”
So she deals with the exhausting flurry of calls, which she says began the very first day her phone was connected this summer.
“It was almost like they were robo-dialing, just waiting. I didn’t even have a chance to hand out my number to family or friends so I couldn’t figure out who was calling me,” she said.
Figluizzi has two options when debt collectors call — both bad. When she lets the phone go to voicemail, the collectors rarely leave a message, and just call back again later. So she often takes choice No. 2 — answering the call and beginning the long, painful conversation with a debt collector.
“I explain to the collectors that, ‘If I was her, do you think I would be answering the phone?’ They say, ‘Sorry .. blah blah,’ ” she said. “But then three hours later, same company calls again. All day long. For weeks. Thankfully some have learned that I am in fact not the person they are looking for, and that, no, I do not know how to reach that person. It’s mindboggling.”
Consumers have long heard nightmare stories about the toxic combination of debt and mistaken identity, when debt collectors will harass the wrong person to pay a debt they don’t owe. Figluizzi’s situation is even simpler, but perhaps more common: It’s just a wrong number. Her phone is clogged by erroneous collection calls that even under the best of circumstances — polite collectors who hang up without incident – there’s a huge hassle.
Figluizzi, 34, believes her problem is a “recycled phone number.” Just like every other dwindling natural resource, America is running out of phone numbers, meaning telephone companies end up re-issuing old ones. It’s a bit of a dirty little secret, some firms are reluctant to admit it, and data on the practice is hard to come by. An Federal Communications Commission study from 2011 says 37 million numbers were recycled annually, a huge jump from a decade earlier, due to the increased number of devices with numbers that consumers have. The problem is manifesting itself in lawsuits against firms like Twitter, which sends confirmation text messages to users and often hits the wrong ones.
Of course, recycled phone numbers aren’t the only reason someone like Figluizzi could be pestered erroneously by debt collectors.
Angela Cable believes her irritating calls began when someone opened up a credit account and invented a phone number that happened to match hers.
“The deadbeat just made a phone number up and stuck with the same fake number with several creditors,” Cable said. The debt collector “tried to get snarky with me about it, ‘Well obviously this number used to be hers. How long have you had it?’ ‘Seventeen years, you dumb….’ Those calls, many of them robocalls, went on for three months.”
Is This Happening to You Too?
Cable said she had luck ending the calls by complaining to the Better Business Bureau.
“If it’s a legitimate company, the way to fix it is to go to the BBB website and file a complaint there. That will stick to them for forever or until you decide to not make it stick any more,” she said. After logging a series of unresolved complaints, the calls stopped, she said.
One tactic consumers (and their lawyers) are increasingly taking is a lawsuit under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, deployed in the Twitter case. Born way back in 1991, the TCPA was the law that set in motion events which eventually led to the Do Not Call list. It also includes a little-used provision that allows private consumers to sue telemarketers for unwanted calls.
Because the law specifies damages for wrongful acts, the dollars can add up quickly. For example, the TCPA makes it illegal to call consumers with a pre-recorded message unless there is an existing business relationship. Each violation makes the calling firm liable for at least $500 in damages.
It’s harder to sue debt collectors for TCPA violations because they enjoy special protections — in part because they theoretically have an existing business relationship with the consumer. Once a consumer establishes that he or she is not the debtor, however, lawsuits are easier to win. And the TCPA penalty increases with so-called “willful violations,” often interpreted as repeated robo-dialing.
But even if consumers getting wrong-number debt calls don’t feel like filing small claims court cases, knowledge of the TCPA can be a real help. Debt collectors, and telemarketers in general, are rightfully afraid of TCPA lawsuits. So often, simply reminding a debt caller that they are subject to TCPA fines is enough to make the calls stop.
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Main image: Kuznetsov Dmitry; inset image courtesy Alicia Figluizzi