When Debt Collector Robocalls Illegally Hijack Your Cell Phone

PHOTO: Patricia Waite and her teenage daughter Heather Waite look at their call log after they say a debt collection company kept robocalling Heathers cell phone, even though she has no debt.
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Heather Waite got a call on her new cell phone a few months ago from a number she didn’t recognize.

When Waite answered, she heard an automated message from a debt collection company, saying they were looking for someone she had never heard of. When she told them they had the wrong number, the message said, “I’ll remove this number.”

But then the company called again. And again. And again. And again.

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Waite said the same automated message called her cell phone two to three times practically every day with the same computer-generated voice -- 204 calls in total in just a few months.

But Waite is a 17-year-old high school student in Belleview, Florida, who has no debt. And, to make matters worse, she said the automated message never asked for her, but would always say, “can I speak to Marcie Rodriguez?”

“We’ve never heard of her,” Waite said. “And the calls were coming in when I was in class.”

That automated message was a robocall, a pre-recorded message companies use to call hundreds of thousands of people at a time through computer software.

But Waite said the message never gave her a chance to opt out. The robocall she received mechanically asked for Marcie Rodriguez, and then only gave the option to “press 1 if you are Marcie Rodriguez.”

So for a while, Waite did what most people do, which was ignore the calls, and often, she said she would just shut her phone off. But the breaking point came when her grandfather was in the hospital and her mother Patricia couldn’t reach her.

“It was getting annoying because I would be at the nursing home all day and I would want to contact her to let her know what’s going on, what’s happening and her phone would be off,” Patricia Waite said. “How else could I get a hold of her? Her phone was shut off.”

So when the debt collection company called her daughter’s cell phone for the 168th time, Patricia Waite decided to do something she didn’t want to do – lie, press 1 and say that she was Marcie Rodriguez. When she did that, Waite said she was transferred to a real life person, who agreed to take her number off the company’s call list and then hung up.

“But they still kept calling after we told them that we’re not Marcie Rodriguez,” Heather Waite said.

So the family got a lawyer. Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a federal law that restricts telephone solicitation, unwanted robocalls to cell phones are illegal and companies that place these calls can be held liable.

Sixty-eight percent of cell phone owners receive at least some unwanted sales calls, according to Pew Research, with a quarter of them reporting that it happens several times a week, and 34 percent say they get calls for collection of debt they don’t owe.

“Every single day across the country, people are getting hundreds of thousands of calls for debts that they don’t owe, and that’s illegal,” said attorney Billy Howard, the founder of the Consumer Protection Department at Tampa-based law firm Morgan and Morgan. “It’s a $500 minimum violation for every unwanted phone call to your cell phone, and could be worth up to $1,500 per call.”

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