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Fed up consumers are fighting back against hounding telemarketing calls

Consumers are fed up with telemarketers, and people like Sandy Townsend, 51, are fighting back. When telemarketers call her, she directs them to the jail or State Attorney’s Office.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Consumers are fed up with telemarketers, and people like Sandy Townsend, 51, are fighting back. When telemarketers call her, she directs them to the jail or State Attorney’s Office.

She's not a cop. She's not a judge or a even lawyer.

But if you're a telemarketer and you harass Sandy Townsend, she'll send you to jail.

The Valrico resident is one of a number of increasingly irritated consumers fed up with telemarketers who try to skirt the "do not call" laws and hound people about some unwanted offer.

For the last year, state investigators have targeted the particular scheme telemarketers used on Townsend. The callers offer a "free energy audit" of consumers' homes. But when a salesman arrives, he pressures the homeowner to buy a solar water heater for thousands of dollars.

Townsend filed a complaint with the State Attorney General's Office. But she didn't wait for law enforcement to take action against the telemarketing operation that called itself the National Energy Coalition. Its representatives had called daily for weeks despite her requests for the calls to stop — a violation of do not call laws.

Exasperated, Townsend finally consented to the offer for the free energy audit.

When asked for her address, she told them: 520 N Falkenburg Road, Tampa, Fla., 33619 — the Falkenburg Road Jail.

"They're breaking the law," Townsend said. "When people break the law, they should go to jail."

Still, the telemarketer didn't go away. She got one more call.

She gave another address. This time it was the State Attorney General's Office in Tampa.

"I figured they'd be the agency to handle it," she said.

The calls stopped. She doesn't know if the salespeople ever showed up at either address, but she felt empowered. And she gave herself and her husband a chuckle.

The couple enjoys a good laugh. Their first date was on April Fool's Day 20 years ago.

The 51-year-old Townsend says she and her husband, Dave, often fantasize about other pranks they could pull on obnoxious telemarketers.

Townsend is perhaps a bit of a more extreme version of her dad, who found success in regularly writing letters to companies if he was not satisfied with products or services. He was her hero growing up in Bowling Green, Ky., where she stayed through her college years at Western Kentucky University.

She was born with much of her tenacity. "I don't give up. My parents said I was a pest. I'm just very persistent, I guess. I like to investigate things."

So at Western Kentucky, she studied journalism and became a reporter for five years. Now she's a freelance writer in advertising and public relations.

The bespectacled woman with shoulder-length brown hair is welcoming and kind and quick to offer you a glass of her homemade sweet ice tea. But don't get on her bad side.

"No one's going to come in my house without a background check," Townsend said. "You better be licensed and insured and bonded."

Because she works from home, she gets the calls from the telemarketers. But even from the time she and her husband moved to Valrico 15 years ago from Stuttgart, Germany, where he was stationed in the U.S. Army, telemarketers have gotten an earful.

The first call came from a telemarketer offering water softeners.

Townsend responded in a strong German accent, "What the water is not good here?"

The caller hung up.

Like Townsend, others are firing back at the telemarketers, and the National Energy Coalition operation, in particular.

In online complaints, consumers note how they're hand­ling the calls:

One writer, named "Lou," said he accepted the offer for the free energy audit and gave a wrong door number on the same street. When the salesman arrived, he grabbed his Sig 556 assault rifle, "but my wife pleaded with me not to confront him."

A less violent suggestion was posted for consumers to "get yourself an air horn and a pair of ear protectors. … Aim the air horn at the phone mouthpiece and blast away."

Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said some consumers have accepted the energy audit and when the salesman arrived, called the police.

"I think what we're seeing is how incessantly persistent these telemarketers are getting," Ivey said. "And consumers are getting fed up.

"I do think the air horn is a much safer route than the assault rifle," he said and laughed.

The department and other state and federal agencies have received hundreds of complaints about various — sometimes fake — companies that have made the offer. A court shut down one company, Sun Energy of Florida, in February. The state filed suit against another, Unlimited Energy Solutions, this week.

Kevin Jackson, chief investigator for the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency, said fighting back might stop some of the calls and give some personal satisfaction, but sending salesman to the police probably won't lead to an arrest.

"The calls are frustrating and all," Jackson said. "Some consumers can take some unique steps to fight back. I'm not sure it's going to help the authorities to pursue the company."

Jackson said the most effective ways to ensure law enforcement has what it needs to take action against a telemarketer who is breaking the law is to keep logs of calls; record the numbers they're calling from; take names of the company and personnel; and register on the do not call list.

Townsend agrees. And says she follows all of those steps. But she said you can't just wait for the government to handle all your problems. She says hold companies to what they promised and stop them when they violate the law.

"Just don't give up," she said.

Fed up consumers are fighting back against hounding telemarketing calls 05/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 11:40am]
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