Richard B. Edelman says it's unfair that unscrupulous marketers enter his home, uninvited, at any time of day or night, and use his phone, help themselves to his ink cartridges and paper, then leave a cheesy advertisement he doesn't want.
If they could, they'd probably leave the toilet seat up, the lights on and dirty dishes in the sink. But junk faxers haven't figured out how to be quite that infuriating.
"I cannot recall ever getting one that had anything I would remotely consider buying," says the Bethesda economic analyst about unsolicited ads his fax machine churns out almost daily. "I consider all of them a waste of time and a nuisance."
Edelman isn't alone in that assessment. Following a recent column about an uptick in unwanted telemarketing calls ("If the Calls Persist, Fight Back," Aug. 21), many readers complained that it is junk faxers, not telemarketers, who are now driving them to unplug their phones.
Falls Church reader Janet Cvrk complains that she gets several junk faxes every week on her home fax machine. "Usually they are investment or real estate firms," she says. "Each time I get one, I call the number to be removed from their fax list. But I continue to get faxes."
Barbara Poretz thinks junk faxing is "a new plague beginning to emerge." The Alexandria teacher says she fears the problem "will begin to rival the number of solicitation phone calls we used to get."
Calling herself "a very annoyed woman in Bethesda who calls these fax senders very bad names," Judith Tomero says the traffic of offending faxes has picked up noticeably since the National Do-Not-Call Registry put a crimp in telemarketing calls.
But she fears that because the number of fax machines in homes is a small fraction of the number of telephones, nobody's concerned. "But the phone ringing at 4 in the morning is more than unpleasant," she says, vowing to write her congressman.
Junk faxes! There ought to be a law!
Well, there is. A couple, in fact. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) prohibits faxing unsolicited advertisements without the recipient's permission or unless the faxer and recipient have an "established business relationship." Federal Communications Commission regulations also require that faxes identify the business on whose behalf the fax is being sent and include its phone number.
A couple of years ago, the FCC decided to toughen the rules even more. "Because of the proliferation of junk faxes, and they'd become a bigger source of aggravation for consumers, we decided to require faxers to get permission from anyone who they would fax ads to," says Rosemary Kimball, FCC's director of media relations in the Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau.
That rule never got off the ground and won't. This summer Congress and President Bush created the Junk Fax Prevention Act, which trumps it by restating the "business relationship" standard and, as of next April, requiring faxers to include opt-out information on the fax's first page. The idea borrows from the Can-Spam Law that went into effect last January and was supposed to stifle unwanted unsolicited e-mails. And we know how well that's working.
Critics say the new junk-fax law won't slow the flood of junk faxes and ignores Federal Trade Commission findings that opt-outs -- at least for spam -- don't usually work and often bring those who opt out more unsolicited ads. "Imagine if Congress said anyone you ever had a conversation with can now send you mail that's postage due and you have to pay the postage. It is advertising at the recipient's expense without their consent. That's what this does," says Steve Kirsch, founder of junkfax.org, a Web site dedicated to battling junk faxers.
Alan Dessoff did his own study of the junk-fax problem. Over the past year or so, the Bethesda communications consultant saved all of the junk faxes he received -- more than 125. He called the toll-free number on each and asked to be removed from the sender's faxing list. "There is no way I can be convinced this has worked," Dessoff says. "I continue to receive faxes that seem to be from the same senders who give the same numbers to call. Even the recorded voices that acknowledge my calls and tell me that my number has been or will be removed are clearly the same. And the faxes keep coming."
Jacob Kuriyan of Corrales, N.M., says the same thing of his steady stream of health insurance and Florida trip faxes. "When you complain to these uber-faxers, they promise to take you off a list, and then they seem to add you to other lists," he says.
Several readers wondered if the federal do-not-call list stops junk faxes. Charlotte Barrett of Falls Church says her fax phone number has been registered on the do-not-call registry for more than a year, "but we receive junk faxes almost daily."
Unsolicited faxes aren't covered by the registry because they were already banned under the TCPA. Not that it matters. Despite federal law that for 14 years has prohibited junk faxes unless there is a business relationship, faxers continue to spew their ads. Many junk faxers are scammers, and crooks don't lose sleep over breaking the law.
How to solve the junk-fax problem then? Some people who pay for a separate unpublished line for their fax machine say it helps. Other people, like Rockville reader Bob Stoddard, pull the plug. "I have shut down my fax machine and have been forced to put all my ringers on low or off," says Stoddard, who has used call blocking to cut down on anonymous junk faxers.
And there are some technological solutions -- from channeling incoming faxes through online fax services, such as Efax.com, to using call-blocking services or screening devices -- but that's another column for another day.
Kirsch tells people he's "probably the last person on Earth you want to send a junk fax to." In 2000, the California software company executive realized he had received "several hundred" junk faxes and "decided to do something about it," he says.
Kirsch launched his Web site and started suing junk faxers under TCPA rules that make faxers of unsolicited ads potentially liable for $500 to $1,500 per fax. He says he has won 50 cases against junk faxers. "If you take these guys to court, you can and do win," he says, calling suing the faxers his hobby. "I've won easily over $100,000. . . . I've sued the two major broadcasters that send the faxes and apparently they don't want to [anger] me anymore. Now I hardly get any."
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