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Stay-at-home dad takes on telemarketing companies targeting him and his family

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

It feels like one of those unstoppable forces of modern life.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

BROWN: Those spam calls from an unknown number always trying to sell you something.

UNIDENTIFIED TELEMARKETER: Hi. I'm with Rian Real Estate - R-I-A-N. Corporate office in Dallas, Texas.

BROWN: Most people just ignore them, send them straight to voicemail. But Planet Money's Jeff Guo brings us the story of someone who tried to fight back and made some money in the process.

JEFF GUO, BYLINE: A couple years ago, Nathen Barton was getting five, 10, sometimes 15 spam calls every day.

NATHEN BARTON: It's been everything - auto warranties, medical insurance, gym memberships.

GUO: Nathen's a stay-at-home dad, and it was the middle of the pandemic, so he had some time on his hands. And he decided he was going to fight back against these telemarketers because there's actually this federal law which says that if a telemarketer calls you illegally without your consent, you can sue them, and you can win up to $1,500 dollars for every call you get. So Nathen thinks, OK, let me try this out. He starts picking up the phone and taking down names. And yeah, a lot of these calls are coming from scammers and identity thieves, but a surprising number of them you can trace back to legitimate companies, like big recognizable brands. It just takes some detective work because a lot of telemarketers won't tell you what company they're with, at least not at first.

BARTON: Sometimes you'll go through an agent or two, and then they'll transfer you to a name that you know. So then you're like, oh, Big Company X is the one who's actually behind this.

GUO: Bingo. That's when Nathen would bring on the lawsuit. Nathen was suing these companies using the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the TCPA, and this law has actually been around for decades. Margot Saunders is a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center. She says Congress was trying to give regular Americans a way to stop these spam calls.

MARGOT SAUNDERS: I think they envisioned that the individuals who received unwanted calls would be able to go into magistrates court, small claims courts, and teach the callers a lesson, and they would stop making the illegal calls.

GUO: And for the most part, this law has worked for Nathen. At this point, he's filed dozens of lawsuits, mostly by himself, and he's settling for thousands of dollars, sometimes much more. But it hasn't all been easy. Earlier this year, one of the telemarketers fought back. They convinced a judge that Nathen's lawsuit was frivolous, and the judge ordered Nathen to pay for the telemarketer's legal fees, which came out to $40,000. Eric Troutman is a defense lawyer who often represents companies that get sued by people like Nathen.

ERIC TROUTMAN: You know, there's instances where someone might go off and buy 80 cellphones just so that they can collect wrong number calls.

GUO: He says some of these people are abusing the system. But Nathen says that's not what he's doing. He's just trying to use the law as it was intended, to teach telemarketers a lesson. So he's appealing that court decision.

BARTON: I'm not going to put up with a lifetime of these junk calls because I disagree with how a judge interpreted a case.

GUO: Nathen says as long as the telemarketers keep calling him illegally, he plans to keep suing them back.

Jeff Guo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Guo
Jeff Guo (he/him) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the complicated forces that move our economy. He joined the team in 2022.