Tired of Unwanted Calls and Texts? This Man Sued a Spam Caller and Won $1,200. Here's How
Americans received more than 50 million robocalls last year. Here's how you can fight back.
Based in Boston, Marcos Cabello has been a personal finance reporter for NextAdvisor and CNET. Marcos has covered cryptocurrency, investing, banking, and the US economy, among other personal finance subjects. If you don't find Marcos behind his computer screen, you'll probably find him behind another screen, playing the newest Nintendo Switch title, streaming the latest TV show or reading a book on his Kindle.
David Weekly's phone is exhausted from spam calls and texts. Every day, he receives unwanted communications -- so many that he's stopped answering his phone altogether. One day, he decided to do something about it.
After receiving a spam text in June, he decided to sue the spammer -- and it paid off. He ended up with a $1,200 check.
"Like every other human being on the planet with a cellphone, I get a lot of spam phone calls and text messages -- I find it kind of annoying," Weekly, a technology executive and California resident, told CNET.
"I've occasionally gone after spammers by reporting them to the shortlink services they use or the web or DNS host of the spamming domain," Weekly said. But this is the first time he sued a spammer in small claims court. And it was the first time he received a check from a spammer.
Though representing yourself in court isn't the easiest process, Weekly's story shows people aren't helpless. In fact, Weekly says his experience -- which went viral on Twitter after he shared it -- has inspired many others to take action against spammers, now knowing that the law gives you the right to sue them.
Here's how one man sued a spam caller and won
Weekly received a text message from a company in June trying to sell him workers' compensation insurance. The company didn't conceal its identity. The text gave the name of the company, a website and an email address for the person running the business.
A quick search online confirmed the company operated out of California. Though Weekly isn't a lawyer, he knew about the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and saw this as a clear violation of the law.
The TCPA is a federal law that, among other things, prohibits unsolicited calls made to cellphones using an automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice (aka a robocall). Text messages are considered calls under the TCPA, according to Anne Mitchell, attorney and CEO of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy.
If a business violates the TCPA, it's obligated to pay $500 per violation or $1,500 each time it "willfully and knowingly" violates this law. If you're on the National Do Not Call Registry, the right to sue includes live telemarketing calls, which refer to spam phone calls involving a live person and not an automated system, according to Margot Saunders, general counsel at the National Consumer Law Center.
Weekly researched the law and sent the company a demand letter stating how much they owed him and why. (Sending a demand letter prior to suing in small claims court is a requirement in California.) After 10 days passed without a reply, Weekly sued.
"It was only about a day or two after I served them with the suit that I got a phone call and a text message saying, 'Hi, there. Looks like you've sued me. Can we talk?'" Weekly said. "Those weren't the exact words, but that was sort of the gist. He was apologetic about having done it, and he recognized that he had done the wrong thing. He asked if I could take it down a notch, and I said, 'Well, how about just a $1,200 check and we can call this thing done?'
"He agreed, and a week later, that $1,200 check showed up," Weekly said. "That was cool and surreal: I'm holding a check that somebody who spammed me sent as an apology. That's pretty neat."
In all, it took Weekly four hours to complete this entire process, and he didn't contact a lawyer or have to show up to court. He subsequently posted his story on Twitter, explaining how he sued the spammer in the thread.
Spam calls are a big nuisance, sure, but what drove Weekly to take legal action wasn't rooted in any deep animosity toward the spam callers.
"These people aren't out there to spam maliciously," Weekly said. "They spam because they did some economic calculus that says it's economically advantageous for them to do so. If even a small percentage of people who are spammed find ways to push back, you can quickly, dramatically change the calculus around whether spamming makes good economic sense."
Though not all TCPA violations are straightforward -- and it's not always easy to identify a spammer in the first place -- Weekly's story shows people aren't defenseless against spam calls. And filing suit is only one tool in your arsenal. Here's what you can do about spam calls and messages.
What can you do about spam calls and texts?
First, you should understand the difference between a spam call and a scam call.
Scam calls are those that are clearly illegal, designed to steal money from people. Scam calls might include people pretending to be a legitimate business (including Apple and Amazon), attempting to defraud an individual. They also include those you might receive about "your car's extended warranty" or your Social Security benefits.
Spam calls, on the other hand, are calls that aren't necessarily trying to steal your money or information. These include legitimate telemarketing calls that you haven't consented to.
Robocalls can be legitimate telemarketing, but they're also a large source of scams in the US. As many as 68 million Americans have reported losing money to phone scams, losing nearly $40 billion collectively within the last year, according to Truecaller's 2022 US Spam and Scam Report. Truecaller, one of the leading platforms for blocking unwanted communication, conducts the yearly review with Harris Poll.
While you can also sue scam callers under the TCPA, it's much harder to find scammers. Often, they're overseas and use temporary numbers, making them almost impossible to find contact information for. But with legitimate businesses, you've got more of a shot of suing them and successfully collecting the damages you're owed.
You can report spam calls and messages to your carrier by texting 7726 -- easy to remember, because it spells "SPAM."
If you received a spam text message, you can forward, or copy and paste, the message to your carrier. (When doing this, take care not to open links that were sent to you.) If it's a call, you can send the caller's number to your carrier.
Some carriers, like AT&T, may also provide online forms that allow you to file a spam complaint with more detail. Many popular US carriers also have apps that enable additional call-blocking features that aren't already included in your phone subscription. These apps, like T-Mobile's ScamShield, may include a specialized area where you can report individual unwanted communications. Verizon's app is called Call Filter and AT&T's app is called ActiveArmor.
Sign up for the Do Not Call Registry
Managed by the Federal Trade Commission, the National Do Not Call Registry is a list of phone numbers of individuals who have requested that telemarketers do not contact them. Companies are required to check the Do Not Call Registry before making telemarketing calls, and calling someone on the list without prior consent is prohibited.
You can sign up for the Do Not Call Registry for free in just a couple of minutes. Though it won't stop all telemarketing calls from reaching you, stopping any amount of calls is helpful. Some organizations, such as political organizations, charities and telephone surveyors, may still call you even if you're on the list.
The Federal Communications Commission is the federal agency responsible for implementing and enforcing US communications law and regulations. As such, in recent years, illegal calls have become a top consumer protection priority for the agency. Here's a list of easy tips from the FCC to help reduce unwanted communications, and protect yourself against conventional scam attempts:
Don't answer calls from blocked, unidentifiable or unknown numbers. Hang up immediately if you answer one of these calls.
Don't respond to questions from or interact with unwanted communications. Never respond to a question that can be easily answered with "yes."
Never give out personal information, including your Social Security number, passwords or other identifying information. Use caution if you are being pressured for information immediately.
If you get an inquiry call from someone who says they represent a company or government agency, such as the IRS, hang up immediately and call the entity from an official source (including your account statement or the entity's website).
Remember: The more you interact with spam or scam callers, the more likely they are to target you further.
Suing is certainly an option if a spammer has violated the TCPA, but successfully doing so will require a bit more work -- and it's somewhat complex, based on the lawyers we spoke with.
Since the Do Not Call Registry expands your right to sue to telemarketing calls of any kind (regardless of what dialing system was used or whether it's live or a robocall), enrolling is a good first step before you file suit. If you're on the Do Not Call Registry and receive more than one telemarketing call from the same caller, you have the right to sue, and you can get $500 per call or text, according to Saunders.
Mitchell argues that receiving a telemarketing call to a number that's on the Do Not Call Registry may qualify as a "willful or knowing" violation of the TCPA, since companies are required to check the Registry before making a telemarketing call. A willful and knowing violation would qualify you for $1,500 per violation.
Some states require you to send a demand letter before suing, but even if it isn't required, Mitchell says it's advantageous to send one first. That's because it's often less costly for companies to settle with you — they can avoid court and attorney's fees — than it would be to appear in court. Settling can also save you money in court fees and serving the defendant with the complaint.
"It's such small potatoes for these companies," Mitchell said. "Is it going to be worth the spammer paying the court and legal fees rather than just settling with you? It never is worth it for them. And they know what they're gonna lose."
If the spammer doesn't respond to your demand letter, then you can move forward with suing in your local small claims court as a TCPA violation.
Here's how to sue a spam caller
Before suing, send a demand letter
In your demand letter, you'll state why and how much the spammer owes you. You may be required to send one before suing in small claims court, depending on where you live, so you'll want to check in with the requirements of your state.
If that doesn't work, it's time for small claims court
Small claims courts are local (e.g., county, municipal) courts that manage cases with a small amount of damages, typically between $5,000 to $10,000, though some states have much lower caps. This is the easiest place to file a TCPA violation, as long as the amount of damages you're claiming doesn't exceed the court's limit. Small claims court also tends to be a cheaper and faster process. Nolo, which is one of the largest online libraries of DIY legal guides, has information on small claims courts by state.
To get started, you'll file a claim
This is the first step in initiating a lawsuit. For small claims court, the initial form is typically called a "statement of claim," but depending on the court, it may simply be called a "complaint." Many court websites will walk you through the process, though some are more user-friendly than others (California and Massachusetts have particularly good websites). The form and process for filing a claim vary by court, so be sure to research your particular court. An internet search with your state or county and "small claims court" should set you in the right direction. In any case, your claim will need to outline how much and why the defendants owe you.
Then, you'll serve the defendant
Adequately giving the defendant notice that you're suing them is an essential component of any lawsuit. This is called "service of process." States differ on what constitutes adequate service. For example, a majority of states (but not all) allow you to send a defendant the lawsuit through certified mail with a return receipt requested. You'll want to check in with the requirements of your state, but getting a private company to serve the defendant is usually the easiest way to go, though it'll cost you a bit more money than doing it yourself.
The bottom line on unwanted calls and texts
At best, unwanted communications are annoying. At worst, they're a large source of scams in the US that reap billions of dollars from American consumers. But whatever the form and content of these unwanted communications, you aren't powerless against the nuisance.
It may take some time and effort, but there are things you can do to push back, including taking legal action against spam or scam communications. As Weekly said, the more people push back, the more the economic calculus changes for spammers, making it riskier and costlier to spam.