Taking On Telemarketers

Thanks to a federal law that most people don't know about, you can get some serious money from those annoying telemarketers who won't take no for an answer. Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum tells you about "Taking on the Telemarketers for Fun and Profit" in a CBS News Saturday Morning Consumer Cover Story.

They always seem to come at the worst possible times: phone calls that force you to stop whatever you're doing and listen to a sales pitch. If you want them to leave you alone, don't just hang up, tell them to stop calling.

Then, if they call again, you can take them to court.

Consumers like Kirsti Thomas in Seattle and David Fedelsky in Vermont are using a federal law that says you can sue telemarketers who keep calling after you have told them not to. Thomas said she got "probably somewhere in the neighborhood between $2,500 and $3,000." She said she paid off the last of her student loan with the proceeds.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act requires companies to keep a list of people who don't want to be bothered by telemarketers. All you have to do is tell them to put you on their "do not call" list.

You need to use specific language. Charles Harwood of the Federal Trade Commission says, "It's absolutely essential that a consumer say to the telemarketer, put me on your 'do not call' list."

Before she started using the law, Maryland resident Barbara Joyce was getting two or three sales calls a night. "Every single night...It was driving us nuts," she says.

Now, she keeps a computerized database of the companies she tells not to call, and most don't. The others pay up, some of them more than once.

There are a number of organizations on the Internet that can help you go after the telemarketers. Some, like Junkbusters.com even provide a script you can keep by the phone.

Those who have tried it say it's worth the effort, and not just because of the money they've collected.

"Since I started fighting back, I don't get calls anymore. And that's fine with me," says Thomas.

But stopping annoying telemarketing calls takes some time. That's because you must deal with each company that calls you on a one-to-one basis. When Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act back in 1991, the Federal Communications Commission was instructed to set up a national registry for people who didn't want sales calls. The FCC has not yet set up the system.

It takes a bit of work to go after telemarketers. You need to find out what the laws are in your state. You may be able to do this in a small claims court without a lawyer. Remember, you'll have to be able to prove who called you and when, and that you told them to put you on their "do not call" list. So you'll need to keep a diary near your phone to write down that information.

Besides suing, you can get caller ID to scren your calls. Some phone companies now have other electronic services. US West has one called "no solicitation." It tells callers you don't accept sales calls. If they stayed on the line and talked to you, they'd be violating federal law!

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