How to sue telemarketers and win

Turning telemarketing harassment into cash is not as hard as you might think

When was the last time you ran to answer the phone, discovered it was a telemarketer, and said to yourself, "Excellent! The call I've been waiting for."

That's what I thought -- and it's why I jumped at the opportunity recently to talk to Steve Ostrow, author of "How to Sue a Telemarketer -- A Guide to Creating Peace on Earth One Telephone Call at a Time." This lawyer/comedian (he moonlights as a Kramer impersonator, from the TV series "Seinfeld") has made it his mission to turn that annoying dinner interruption into a moment of avarice-tinged, devilish glee.

[ Got a software or licensing grievance? Find out how to take your tech vendor to small claims court -- and win. | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

His book is funny -- or so he tells me -- but telemarketing calls aren't, at least for most people. Fortunately, the law is on the side of consumers in this matter. Though most people feel helpless to do anything about this annoyance, a few key pieces of information can eliminate that sense of victimization. 

"Suing telemarketers can be a hobby," says Ostrow. And like collecting stamps or antiques, it can occasionally pay a hefty cash reward. "I make more money suing telemarketers than I did from this book," he offers.

His book details what information you need to gather when you receive a telemarking call (the caller's phone number, business name, mailing address) and what to say to bolster your case (ask for the company's do-not-call manual, for one thing).

If you've listed your phone number with the national Do No Call registry, asked the company not to call you, asked to be put on that company's internal do-not-call list, and requested that company's do-not-call manual, yet the outfit ignores your wishes and calls you anyway, you might feel helpless. Ostrow suggests, instead, that it's high time you cashed in on this company's willful disregard of the law and your rights. It's not that hard -- and it's very satisfying.

If you're being pestered by telemarketers on your cell phone, Jeff Stalnaker, CEO and president of First Orion (makers of PrivacyStar), suggests that his company's phone app can help execute Ostrow's suggestion. It automatically looks up the number that calls you and provides the company's name, saving you the trouble of grilling the caller for that information. It also provides you with evidence of the call.

"Our users can go to our website where the call and phone number are logged," he says. Then instead of taking notes about telemarketing calls, perhaps not the best proof, "They can just print that off and take it to your small claims court."

But what sort of chance does a non-lawyer citizen have in court against these companies? "The first thing," says Ostrow, "is to learn who your defendants are. There are some telemarketers who are a slam dunk."

This is an outfit -- as in the scenario above -- that is thumbing its nose at the law. These companies have decided that even a few settlements a year is a cost of business that cuts only slightly into the profits it gleans from this form of marketing. You are very likely to get a cash settlement if you haul one of those firms into small-claims court.

"If it is a public corporation," he explains, "they are not allowed to have a judgment against their books, so they will usually settle." For those companies, you don't even need to go to court -- a simple letter will do, and Ostrow has that letter on hand, ready to send.

But before I got too excited about funding my next vacation this way, I wanted to know exactly how much money I could stand to make from all this detective-style information gathering. I asked Ostrow the amount of the average take.

The answer: A lot of this is at the discretion of the judge (a population that is harassed by telemarketers just as much as the rest of us). Ostrow says, as judge, he would usually not fine a company that was naïve and accidentally broke the law. But for the scofflaw? A different matter altogether.

"If the company called someone who is on the Do Not Call List," he says, "that is a $500 violation. If the consumer asks for that company's Do Not Call manual and doesn't receive it? Another $500. Did the company block its own caller ID? That will cost them another $500."

That's already $1,500. What if all these are, in the opinion of the judge, intentional efforts to thwart the consumer's right not to receive these calls, says Ostrow? Especially if the company thinks it is pulling the wool over the judge's eyes, the judge has the discretion to triple (the legal terms is treble) each of those fines. So I could make $4,500 -- and a lot of satisfaction -- for paying attention, doing a little research, documenting when I get these calls, and spending a few hours in court? That's my kind of hobby.

Even if I don't ever get around to suing, it's fun to mess with telemarketers, Ostrow assures me. They often get spooked when you turn the tables on them and start acting like a sleuth. For many people, spooking telemarketers into hanging up and not calling again can be pleasure enough.

"When you know that you can play with them, it changes your attitude about telemarketing calls," says Ostrow. It certainly does. Something about seeing dollar signs and court judgments followed by a deluxe cruise (or a lot of paid bills) just takes the feeling of victim right out of you.

Got gripes or questions? Send them to

This story, "How to sue telemarketers and win," was originally published at Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.