Law Firm Mines Personal Info From Phone App Designed To Block Pest Calls

Cell phoneIf you are one of the thousands using a cell phone app to block pest calls and spam you may actually be unwittingly exposing yourself to further unsolicited calls. Not just any unsolicited calls, either, but calls from plaintiffs’ law firms using personal information culled from the app to drum up business.

This revelation was made recently by the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) which uncovered the startling allegation while researching abuses of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, or TCPA.

The TCPA was passed by Congress twenty-five years ago to eliminate unwanted telemarketing phone calls.  The law has helped cut down on some unsolicited calls, but anyone who has a cell phone knows the law hasn’t totally eliminated junk phone calls. The Federal Communications Commission receives tens of thousands of consumer complaints about unwanted – and, in many cases, illegal – phone calls and texts each year.

The TCPA has also given rise to a cottage industry of law firms that specialize in suing those who have allegedly violated the law. These lawsuits can be quite lucrative for plaintiffs’ lawyers, and unfortunately, whenever there is money to be made by filing lawsuits, there are often those who are willing to twist the law to unintended purposes to enrich themselves. As a result, the TCPA has resulted in a number of questionable high profile lawsuits in recent years, and those lawsuits have come under the microscope of the Chamber’s ILR.

One of those lawsuits was filed in 2012 against the Buffalo Bills football team. A class action lawsuit was brought against the team after it offered to send fans updates about the team if they signed up to get them. The team promised to send only five text messages a week. However, one week, the team sent six texts, and another week it sent seven. Their offense: sending three extra text messages over two weeks. As trivial as that might seem to most people, that case resulted in a settlement of $2.5 million – and the lawyers took home more than $500,000!

Spurred on by large awards like that, some firms are now scrambling to find plaintiffs who will agree to sign on as members of class action lawsuits, and some are allegedly using underhanded tactics to find their new clients. That’s where the smartphone app comes in.

While reading court filings that are part of a recent lawsuit filed against a law firm that specializes in TCPA lawsuits, the ILR found something very interesting and ironic.

A lawyer named Tammy Hussin who worked for a firm named Lemberg Law was sued by the firm for violating terms of a separation agreement. Hussin had left Lemberg in 2014 but apparently continued to represent some of the firm’s TCPA clients in California. The firm claims she failed to pay it for awards she collected under the agreement.

According to ILR, Hussin then countersued Lemberg, and that’s where things get very interesting.

She alleges that:

“the firm used information obtained through a cell phone app to file TCPA claims against businesses, without the individual’s knowledge or consent.

According to Hussin, the firm made a deal with PrivacyStar, a telephone application that identifies who is calling and why.  The PrivacyStar application allows users to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) when they receive an unwanted phone call.  The FTC handles the National Do Not Call Registry and users were providing information to potentially stop telemarketing calls.  Hussin claims that PrivacyStar was providing Lemberg with the names and numbers of individuals who used the app to file a complaint.

What the users supposedly did not know is the Lemberg firm was trolling the data to seek out potential, and often unsuspecting, clients for TCPA litigation.

Ironically enough, the lawsuit alleges that the firm—supposedly seeking restitution for individuals inundated by unwanted calls—was itself pestering these app users with more unsolicited calls” (emphasis added).

Could PrivacyStar really be providing personal information about its customers to a plaintiff lawyer? A consumer reporter in Dallas by the name of Dave Lieber decided to look into the company even before these allegations were made and found some things he believes raise red flags about PrivacyStar.

According to Lieber: “Two of the company’s top executives are former execs at Acxiom, the highly secretive data collection company that keeps zillions of bytes of data on millions of Americans and sells that information to retailers and others willing to pay for it. Both Acxiom and PrivacyStar are based in Conway, Ark. Charles Morgan was CEO of Acxiom before he left. He is now CEO of First Orion, the parent company of PrivacyStar. Jeff Stalnaker, the PrivacyStar founder and current CEO, was division president at Acxiom.”

Lieber also discovered that the terms and conditions of PrivacyStar’s app: “allow the company to collect personal information including name, address, phone, email address, credit card information, mobile device information including ‘unique device identifier,’ marketing interests and ‘demographic information such as interests and ZIP code.’” In addition, he says the company’s policy gives it permission to share this information with third parties.

If the allegations Hussin has made against Lemberg Law are true, this case indicates that a popular smartphone app used by some people to protect their privacy may actually be sharing their personal information with at least one plaintiff lawyer.  It also illustrates the extreme measures some plaintiff lawyers go to these days to drum up business.

It sounds like what we really need is an app that can protect American consumers from overzealous plaintiff lawyers!

Please

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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