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7th Circuit Holds that Debt Collectors Cannot Call Cell Phones with Robo Callers to Collect Debts Once the Cell Phone Number No Longer Belongs to the Person Who Owes the Money

 

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act often referred to simply as the TCPA protects consumers from unwanted prerecorded calls from advertisers and bill collectors. It is intended to stop use of automated dialers and prerecorded messages to cell phones, whose subscribers often are billed for the call and do not want to be harassed with unwanted calls.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has ruled that bill collectors violate the TCPA when they use predictive dial machines to automatically call the old phone number of persons who didn’t pay their cell phone bills after those numbers are reassigned to new people who don’t owe any money. The Court ruled that this practice was no different than a repo man breaking into a garage and taking the car of the new owner of the house once the old owner who hadn’t paid her car payments moved out. It commented on the nuisance created by predictive dialers that debt collectors uses to repeatedly make phone calls to the wrong cell phone numbers of innocent people who don’t owe AT&T a dime:

Predictive dialers lack human intelligence and, like the buckets enchanted
by the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, continue until stopped by their true master. Meanwhile Bystander is out of pocket the cost of the airtime minutes and has had to listen to a lot of useless voicemail.

In this case, AT&T hired a bill collector to call cell phone numbers at which customers had agreed to receive calls. The collection agency used a predictive dialer that works autonomously until a human voice answers. Predictive dialers continue to call numbers that no longer belong to the customers and have been reassigned to individuals who had not contracted with AT&T.

The district court certified a class of individuals receiving automated calls after the numbers were reassigned and held that only consent of the subscriber assigned the number at the time of the call justifies an automated or recorded call. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. With regard to the TCPA violation it had this to say: “An automated call to a land line phone can be an annoyance; an automated call to a cell phone adds expense to annoyance.” You can read the 7th Circuit’s opinion in Soppet v. Enhanced Recovery by downloading the file here.


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