Friday, May 12, 2006

Your Phone Company Owes You $1,000

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

hello verizon, where is my money

I really try to stay out of political discussions in my everyday life, and I’m reluctant to add a “politics” tag to Punny Money now, but a certain hot political topic could have a significant effect on your personal finances.

The issue to which I’m referring is the recent announcement that Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T have been handing over the phone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency (NSA). Whether you agree or disagree with these actions, they could have a very strong effect on your wallet one way or another.

On the one hand, if one of these three phone companies provides you telephone service, they could now owe you at least $1,000. That’s because some people believe their cooperation with the NSA in this matter violates certain sections of the Stored Communications Act. Think Progress carries the story:

The Stored Communications Act, Section 2703(c), provides exactly five exceptions that would permit a phone company to disclose to the government the list of calls to or from a subscriber: (i) a warrant; (ii) a court order; (iii) the customer’s consent; (iv) for telemarketing enforcement; or (v) by “administrative subpoena.” The first four clearly don’t apply. As for administrative subpoenas, where a government agency asks for records without court approval, there is a simple answer–the NSA has no administrative subpoena authority, and it is the NSA that reportedly got the phone records.

And the consequences for the companies that have violated this law?

The penalty for violating the Stored Communications Act is $1000 per individual violation. Section 2707 of the Stored Communications Act gives a private right of action to any telephone customer “aggrieved by any violation.” If the phone company acted with a “knowing or intentional state of mind,” then the customer wins actual harm, attorney’s fees, and “in no case shall a person entitled to recover receive less than the sum of $1,000.”

According to Think Progress, all of this means that the telcos could be liable to Americans for tens of billions of dollars in damages. So on the other hand, should any class action lawsuit successfully prove this case to be true, you may see your phone bill rise significantly to cover the expenses such a loss would cause the major telecommunications agencies.

I especially love response #91 (reproduced below) to the Think Progress article which details exactly how an ordinary person like you or me could go about collecting that $1,000 the phone company supposedly owes us…

  1. Go to your local district court and file a small claim action for $1000 for “Illegally providing phone records to the NSA” Costs about $30.
  2. The court clerk will stamp your claim and give you a Case Number and a court date.
  3. Serve your phone company by mailing the stamped claim by registered mail. Costs about $5.
  4. Attend the court hearing. A lawyer from your phone company MUST show up to defend. If they don’t show up, you will win $1000 by default. If they do defend, you’ll at least get a chance to have your say on the record, and you might win. BUT, either way, just think how much we could cost the phone company if just 10,000 of us did this? The cost of just defending these cases would make the phone company think twice about playing ball with the feds. For an added bonus, send a copy of the claim a week before your court date to the local newspapers and you might even stir up some press.

Anyone out there care to give this a shot? I might do it myself, but I’m afraid Verizon will tell the government about all those 900 numbers I’ve been calling.

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