If your wireless phone keeps ringing with annoying automated calls from businesses you'd rather not talk to, you now may have the power to stop some of them.
All you have to do is ask.
A federal appeals court in Pennsylvania recently ruled that customers who give companies permission to contact them on their wireless phones aren't bound by that agreement for life and can ask that some types of calls stop.
A Scranton-area woman sued Dell Financial Services after receiving repeated auto-dialed calls with pre-recorded messages on her wireless phone, attempting to collect on her delinquent account. She had listed the number on a credit application.
Ashley Gager of Honesdale, Wayne County, alleged that Dell continued to call her after she wrote to the company in December 2010, asking it to stop. She alleged she got about 40 of the robocalls over three weeks.
She lost the first round of her fight last year when the U.S. District Court in Scranton ruled in favor of Dell.
But in August, an appeals court ruled in her favor with a decision that could benefit millions of people nationwide, said Cary Flitter, the Montgomery County lawyer who represented Gager on her appeal.
In overturning the federal District Court decision, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said consumers can revoke any prior consent they have given companies to contact them on their wireless phones with auto-dialed calls.
"The consumer controls consent and can revoke the consent — even later after the fact," Flitter said.
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits automated calls to wireless phones unless people have agreed to receive them.
Dell argued it was allowed to call Gager because she had provided her consent when she provided her wireless phone number when she filled out a credit application. It contended that prohibiting calls would interfere with its right to collect the debt she owed.
Dell said Gager accepted the benefits of her contract — thousands of dollars in computer equipment purchased on credit — and could not revoke her consent because the law doesn't specify that she could.
The appeals court disagreed. It said the Telephone Consumer Protection Act doesn't say whether people can or can't revoke their consent. It doesn't address the issue.
"Any silence in the statute as to the right of revocation should be construed in favor of consumers," 3rd Circuit Judge Jane Roth wrote in the opinion.
She said because consent is given voluntarily, people can withdraw their consent at any time.
"Now it doesn't matter what you put in your dopey agreement," Flitter said. "Now it's revocable."
Dell said it was not aware the phone number Gager listed on her credit application was a wireless phone, as it had been listed as her "home" phone.
The appeals court denied that, too.
"Callers have a continuing responsibility to check the accuracy of their records to ensure that they are not inadvertently calling mobile numbers," Roth wrote.
Last month, the 3rd Circuit Court refused Dell's request to reconsider the case.
Dell's attorneys had argued in their petition for reconsideration that the Federal Communications Commission allows debt collection robocalls to wireless phones when the customers have provided their number in connection with the debt.
They said the appeals court's "incorrect decision has the potential to unsettle countless debtor-creditor relationships and to raise the costs associated with consumer credit, to the detriment of all consumers."
Dell still could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Flitter said people who want to stop automated calls from businesses they previously consented to should make that request in writing to the company. He said the court ruling applies to text messages, too.
Be aware that this isn't the solution to every unwanted phone call.
It won't stop scam calls because those callers don't care about breaking the law. And this court opinion does not restrict businesses from calling your cellphone by manually dialing your number. It applies only to auto-dialed calls.
"Dell will still be able to telephone Gager about her delinquent account," Roth wrote. "The only limitation imposed … is that Dell will not be able to use an automated dialing system to do so."
The opinion also applies only to wireless phones, not to land lines. But Flitter believes this court opinion could later be applied to robocalls made to land lines, too.
"I think it will have some carry-over," he said.
New FCC regulations that took effect Oct. 16 may help with calls to land lines. The agency now requires that all telemarketers making robocalls to land lines obtain written permission from customers, even if they have an existing business relationship with them. The rules previously allowed such calls without written permission if there was a relationship.
Flitter said the appeals court remanded the Gager case to the District Court in Scranton to consider factual issues, such as how many calls were made to Gager's wireless phone, whether they were "willful" and what any penalties should be.
The case remains pending.
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