Judge awards $229,500 for robocall harassment. Should you sue?

A Texas woman who got 153 robocalls was awarded $229,500. Consumer advocates say many people have grounds to sue for unwanted calls.

Brian Barling/Christian Science Monitor/File
'The automated political calls are debating' says a woman to a man. She is holding up two mobile phones, making reference to the proliferation of 'robocalls,' or automated telephone calls on behalf of political candidates, being made during the 2008 campaign.

For millions of Americans, robocalls are a barely tolerated nuisance. But when one Texas woman received 153 robocalls from a cable company, she didn't tolerate it, she complained – and was awarded almost a quarter of a million dollars. 

US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan has ordered Time Warner Cable to pay Araceli King of Irving, Texas, $229,500 for harassing her with more than 100 robocalls even after she complained about them, behavior the judge called "particularly egregious."

According to the ruling, Time Warner Cable violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, a law meant to curb robocall and telemarketing abuses.

Many others may also be receiving unauthorized calls – and some may be eligible for damages. This decision sends a message to consumers to "stop taking it on the chin" when robocalls cross the line, said Ms. King's lawyer, Sergei Lemberg.

"Millions of US consumers get robocalls. Only a few of them take it a step forward and get a lawyer," Mr. Lemberg told NBC News.

How can you determine whether a company is breaking the law, and if you can sue for robocalls?

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act offers some basic guidelines, advises Ada Kulesza of Lawyers.com and Kevin Hunt of the Hartford Courant:

• Solicitors can't call your house before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

• They must maintain and honor a company-specific "do-not-call" list of consumers who asked not to be called again

• They must honor the National Do Not Call Registry

• They can't use automated dialing or a prerecorded voice to call you without your permission

• They can't call your cellphone without your permission

If these or other rules are violated, consumers can sue for between $500 and $1,500 for each unauthorized call, writes Mr. Hunt. There are exceptions, however. For one thing, non-sales calls from political groups or non-profits can use recorded voices to call your home number.

What should you do if you're receiving unauthorized calls?

Hunt offers some guidelines

First, he says, "If you haven't already, add your home phone and cellphone numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry. Telemarketers must remove you from their lists and stop calling within 31 days."

Consumers should also opt out of the offending telemarketer's robocalls and note the date. If calls don't stop, penalties for subsequent calls can triple, as they did in the case of Ms. King.

Finally, consumers should keep a record of calls, including the telemarketer's phone number, the date of each call, whether they're recorded or include a person, and save all voice and text messages from telemarketers. Consumers can then contact the Federal Trade Commission or hire an attorney.

"If, knowing the penalties, a telemarketer or bank or debt collector nonetheless violates the law, then they deserve to get whacked," Lemberg told the Courant. "And if they get whacked enough, they'll stop doing it."

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