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Chicago couple 'bombarded' with cold calls from attorneys after fender bender

Couple 'bombarded' with cold calls from attorneys after fender bender
Couple 'bombarded' with cold calls from attorneys after fender bender 03:39

CHICAGO (CBS) – This story started with a viewer email from a Chicago couple who got dinged in a minor fender bender.

Then they got hit again, this time on the phone, bombarded by unsolicited calls and tests from law firms. CBS 2's Lauren Victory went on the hunt for answers.

JoAnne Berens showed us a popped-out bumper and two barely-there scratches.

No one was hurt in the minor crash that happened on 94th Street and Ewing Avenue. Her husband and the other person were able to drive away.

"Well about four hours after we filed the police report, my husband's phone just started getting bombarded," Berens said.

He was bombarded with calls and texts on behalf of personal injury attorneys.

"The lawyer said if he went to the hospital immediately, that the lawyer could guarantee him $12,000 to $15,000 in compensation," she said.

That bothered Berens. She wondered who would make a fake claim like that and where did these law firms get their contact information?

"The reason we called CBS News was that we wanted to find out how this was happening?" she said.

Our first thought: check if car accidents are publicly tracked through the City of Chicago data portal.

Sure enough, right on the homepage is a link to "traffic crash" records.

From there, you can open up a data set with al sorts of information about a crash, from date to weather conditions, to injury status, and, important to this story, street address.

Victory showed Berens how someone can input accident date and location using that public data, then pay $6 for victim information.

"That's my husband's name and that's his phone number," she said.

Trisha Rich, a legal ethics attorney for Holland and Knight, was also immediately contacted by a law firm representative after her accident in a Chicago taxi.

"I was absolutely stunned actually," Rich said. "I said, 'Why you think that this isn't a conversation that's prohibited by Rule 7.3?"

As a legal ethics expert, Rich knows Illinois Supreme Court Rule 7.3 prohibits the solicitation of clients, including crash victims over the phone.

"He got very upset," Rich said. "He ended up hanging up on me."

Personal injury attorney Tim Tomasik does not cold call.

"It is so professionally disturbing to hear about his practice," Tomasik said.

He's also the president of the Chicago Bar Association and explained the solicitation ban is to protect the vulnerable.

"People who have been injured, whether it's in a crash, or say, in a hospital, they're overwhelmed," Tomasik said.

Rich said, "Other kinds of communication are OK. A lawyer can send you a letter in the mail."

Attorneys are also allowed to solicit via text if their message is labeled "advertising material," which Berens' was not.

In the meantime, CBS 2 found accident data usually isn't posted for at least a half a day. It was only five hours post-crash when the cold calls and texts began for Berens' husband.

Victory: "It still doesn't solve the mystery of how they were able to get your information so quickly."

Berens: "Yes. It doesn't."

Whatever happened, Berens hopes the soliciting lawyers are dinged for not following the rules.

Anyone bombarded by lawyer cold calls can file a complaint with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

Berens recently reported the numbers that illegally contacted her. CBS 2 also reached out to all of the cold callers. Two of them hung up on Victory. None copped to how they got the personal information.

Other legal sources said sometimes a doctor or police officer will pass the information on to law firms.

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