How you can fight junk fax overload
By James Fuller
A fax comes through your machine advertising a service promising to “jump start your love life” if you just fill out a form and fax it back.
You’ve never done business with this company before. You never asked to receive this information. It’s your fax machine. Your expensive toner. Your paper. Your lost time.
You now have several options. You can call the removal number at the bottom and hope they respect your wishes. You can fill out the form and fax it back for a chance at finding true love. You can call the Federal Communications Commission and complain. Or, you can use the fax to become at least $500 richer.
Receiving unsolicited fax advertisements, a practice known as junk faxing, is a growing problem for anyone with a fax machine. Many fax owners are looking to deliver a permanent disconnection notice to bulk fax senders in court.
Just last August, a California man sued Fax.com, a commercial faxing company from California, for $2.2 trillion because he received more than 100 unwanted faxes at his home.
In Illinois, Naperville resident Robert Bulmash became so annoyed about all the junk faxes, calls and letters he received that he began Public Citizen Inc. The company puts clients on a do-not-call list for a fee and then helps sue companies when they violate the list and the law.
A federal law, known as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, makes it illegal to send an unsolicited commercial advertisement from a fax machine. People receiving these faxes can sue for at least $500 per fax, with some courts awarding up to $1,500 per fax. Even one fax can be enough to sue successfully.
Consumers are becoming both more annoyed and more informed of their rights.
FCC statistics show the agency received nearly 7,500 complaints last year from consumers about perceived violations. Beyond that, it logged more than 25,000 calls from people seeking information about the law.
The FCC has issued dozens of citations, including some against businesses in Lake Barrington and Lisle.
It’s also levied some hefty fines against bulk faxing companies for incessant advertisements. The largest to date totaled nearly $5.4 million against Fax.com for 489 fax violations. Each fax cost the company the maximum federal fine of $11,000.
But Fax.com and others send out many more faxes than that on a regular basis. Soulmates, a dating service based in Schaumburg, said it sends out about 10,000 fax advertisements per week through a bulk fax mailer, which it declined to name.
A marketing employee at Soulmates said the company was not aware the practice was illegal but also couldn’t say it would stop now that it did. Soulmates provides an opt-out number at the bottom of its faxes, but courts have ruled that is not enough to make the practice legal.
The reason people sue is because of the out-of-pocket costs of receiving the fax and the general nuisance of the problem.
Dan Edelman of the Chicago law firm Edelman, Combs & Latturner LLC has brought about 30 successful suits against junk faxers in Cook, Kane and DuPage counties. Some of his clients bring class action suits, and others are individual cases, including one in which a business received more than 18,000 junk faxes over several months.
Edelman said many of the faxes advertise investment scams created by “fly-by-night” companies consisting of a phone and nothing else. The worst thing to do, he said, is to call the removal number.
“All the removal number does is cause you to be put on a sucker list,” he said. “It ensures someone that you are, in fact, looking at the fax. It’s a nuisance. It’s like conducting direct mail, but getting the recipient to pay the postage involuntarily.”
Bulk fax companies generally defend the practice as a legitimate, free-speech method of acquiring customers. That argument has only prevailed in one court and the decision was recently overruled.
Private Citizen’s Bulmash said the free speech defense is the weakest of all.
“Let’s say I want to print an ad in the paper and I walked in and said, ‘Stand aside, stop using your press, I’m going to use it.’ It’s absurd. Yet these firms are using my fax machine as their printing presses,” Bulmash said.
Since the late 1980s, Bulmash’s company has collected more than $2 million in lawsuits for its 4,000 members. The amount collected only reflects the severe annoyance of the problem, he said.
“It’s like spray painting an ad on the side of my home without my permission,” he said. “It’s my telephone. It’s my fax machine. It’s my home, my final sanctuary and I determine who’s speech can enter my door. If you want to sell me something do it outside of my home and not on my personal property.”