My Answering Machine is a Felon (And So Am I?)

Someone who owes somebody some money used to have our phone number (assuming they didn’t choose it at random). We no longer answer calls from “Toll Free” because I’m tired of being pestered by Mike Huckabee and Steve Forbes about this or that (I guess an upside of his run for the presidency is that I used to get pestered by Newt Gingrich and don’t anymore). Historically, none of them ever left a message. But the debt collectors are starting to. They call about twice a day.

The message goes something like “This call is for Jane Jones. If this is not Jane Jones, please hand up now. This involves debt collection and if you are not Jane Jones and you do not hang up, you are guilty of violating federal confidentiality laws.”

Of course, my answering machine doesn’t hang up. So, it’s a felon. I guess I am, too, since I have listened to the message all the way through. Oddly, there’s nothing after the stern warning that tells me anything that I didn’t already know from before the warning except for the name of the debt collection agency and the 1-800 number to call in order to pay up. But you know, that would actually be a helpful thing to tell me before the warning, if only so that I can call them back and let them know that Jane Jones can no longer be reached at this number. If I call back, though, they will know that I listened longer than I should have (and that my answering machine and I are both felons).

I do actually question what legal liability, if any, I would have here. I can’t imagine that it is any. Or any of significance. I’ve read that those disclaimers at the bottom of emails saying “If you are not the intended recipient, you are legally bound to delete this email and pretend that you never read it.” And that has a stronger case than the phone messages, since at least they don’t presume I am going to not read it (or, in the case of phone messages, listen to it).

So no doubt it’s just a matter of covering their posteriors in case they get sued for some confidentiality breach.

Anyway, one of these days I will answer the phone and let them know about Ms. Jones. I already fielded some debt collection calls shortly after we moved in for somebody else. After the second or third time, they stopped calling. These calls from “California State Debt Collection*” have been going on for several weeks now.

* – This debt collection agency – not actually named CSDC – has a very official-sounding name. I think it might be supposed to make it sound more serious. You’re not dealing with a debt collection agency, you’re dealing with a government agency. Even if it’s not a government you actually live in the jurisdiction of. It’s kind of clever, when you think about it.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. If only a person with some kind of expertise regarding questions of legality, a law-talkin’ guy of some sort, were available to answer your inquiry.

      • Sorry, fellas, I’ve been busy with back-to-back jury trials and social obligations in the holidays. I’m on a brief reprieve to proofread my bills before I have to go back this afternoon. I’ve been meaning to finish up my next Great Case, but haven’t done that, either.

        Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, calls are only supposed to come during business hours (8:00-6:00) and they aren’t supposed to discuss the debt with anyone but the debtor. That’s why you get the “hang up now” portion of the message. Frankly, I think delegating that to a robocall is a violation of the FDCPA, precisely because of this situation — people move, and frequent debtors tend to move more frequently than folks with the financial ability to stay on top of their debt, and therefore phone numbers are especially likely to be incorrect, resulting in a robocall divulging debtors’ information to someone other than the debtors.

        You have not committed a crime of any sort by having an answering machine field a robocall.

        Calls are not supposed to be threatening or harassing. Twice a day sounds harassing. However, if they are calls on separate debts, even if they are from the same agency, that would not be harassing. It also wouldn’t be entirely surprising.

        Like any corporation or other business entity, they can be named anything that isn’t deceptive, although I’ve seen several credit and collection agency names that do sound deceptively like government agencies.

        Anyone has the right to contact the agency and ask to not be contacted by phone anymore. (There is no right to stop dunning letters.) After a reasonable amount of time has passed from making the request, each violation thereafter induces a $500 civil penalty. You do need to speak to a live person to make the calls stop, though, or you need to write them. Letters work great because they leave paper trails. What you want is to be left alone; because someone else is in debt and collections, that’s not your problem. It’s a pain, but I’d write a paper letter to the agency and tell them to leave you the hell alone for anything but your own problems.

        • Had one of these:
          Told them to stop calling about three times…
          (predictably they didn’t stop)
          Then I crisply stated “If you call me one more time, I will talk to my lawyer”
          … and magic! no more calls.

  2. FWIW, there is not actually a federal law regarding “if you do not hang up now” bullshit from their automated messages. Far from it. They’re just trying to scare people.

    • I wouldn’t think that there was. It seems pretty hard core to say “it is illegal for you to receive information that you never requested,” similarly with those “if you are not the authorized recipient of this email, you have the following obligations…” (the obligation not to tell anyone what you saw is sketchy, but the obligation to delete the email and notify the sender strikes me as particularly problematic). But those intended-recipient-signatures specifically come from law firms, who would presumably have a better idea of the law than me.

  3. Also FWIW, you as the person on the end of the call do not have the liability issue, even if you just sit there and let a live person tell you all Jane Jones’s personal info. The collector is the one with the legal responsibilities and the duty to protect the debtor.

  4. It’s a stupid thing to say, but the people it’s supposed to scare are even stupider.

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