Junk faxes and "the little guy"

2006-09-30 04:32

I just created a separate category for fax-related (and spam-related) articles in my blog. It’s been over three years now since I first sued a junk faxer.

I still get junk faxes.

Occasionally, some reporter is suckered in by a sob story about how it’s all innocent small victims that are being sued, and junk faxing isn’t bad. It’s big corporate lawyers trying to steal the money of poor little us, who had no idea what was happening.

It’s bullshit.

First, it’s not “big corporate lawyers” in most cases. Of the lawsuits I’ve seen or been involved in, the vast majority are pro se (that is to say, non-lawyers filing without the benefit of a lawyer at all) or handled by just some guy. All but one of my fax cases have involved only one lawyer on my side. His heart is pure, though, so he fights with the strength of ten, and that helps.

Secondly, it’s not innocent small victims. Every time we actually get through the lies and excuses, we find that someone at the company made a deal where someone would fax for them. They knew what they were doing. In most cases, they’re even vaguely aware of the law.

Now, you might say “if they aren’t aware of the law, they shouldn’t get sued”. And that would sound really wonderful, except that it’s not how laws work. It’s not illegal to send junk faxes because the government wants to destroy small businesses. It’s illegal because junk faxes were destroying small businesses. Everyone who has a business fax gets bombarded with these things, and they are still a major cost and nuisance. Not as much as they were before the law, but quite serious. (And no, calling to be removed doesn’t work. It’s no more illegal to send after such a call than it was before it, so why should the faxer waste resources keeping track?)

That the junk faxes are illegal makes pretty much the entire argument stupid. It’s not as though people are suing for imaginary damages or claiming emotional trauma; people are claiming the damages defined by the law. Why are those damages more than cost of paper and ink? Because it costs money to collect, and it costs money to sue. There’s some analogy here to the various programs that offer people rewards for information leading to convictions, but our overworked public servants are even better off if the enforcement can be handled by third parties too. So that’s what happens.

The basic damages ($500 per ad) are fairly small. If I get a single fax, it’s hard to justify collecting. The treble damages provided for people who knew they sent faxes without permission are higher, but still not high enough to make it easy to hire a lawyer.

But let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there was no law against junk faxes. Would it be moral to send them?

No.

The fact is, junk faxes are pretty much theft. I think they formally call it “conversion” when, without permission, you take something that doesn’t belong to you and use it, rendering it unusable for the person who owned it. Paper and ink are just the start of this. I’m on my third fax machine now. In the time I’ve owned fax machines, I have gotten perhaps ten faxes that were not junk faxes. I am somewhere between 1,300 and 1,400 junk faxes.

Without the junk fax law, junk faxes were a lot more common; think five or ten a day, for every fax machine. Large companies may still get this many; a newspaper with 40 fax machines will probably get 40 copies of most ads.

All the stuff about established business relationships is a red herring. Frankly, it doesn’t apply in most cases, but even if it did, why not just get permission before stealing your customers’ resources? You’d better believe a lot of people will drop a vendor who harasses them at their expense.

But we still hear the “oh, I have to do this, why are you telling me to stop” line. It turns out there’s a word for it; these people are entitlement bitches. They think the world owes them a living. Junk faxing (in the absence of lawsuits) is an insanely cheap way to advertise to lots of people, because the bulk of the costs are borne by the recipients. Imagine that you could distribute a large full-page ad to a hundred thousand people, and have total printing costs of $0. Who wouldn’t go for that? Well, someone who didn’t like stealing wouldn’t go for that.

Instead, what we find time and again when we sue these people is that they are liars, they are cheats, and they are incompetents. They are at companies that are involved in predatory lending, or they are violating their card merchant agreement to overcharge credit card buyers by 3%. (Yes, I know it costs money to accept cards; card merchant agreements require you to eat that cost, and prohibit a surcharge for card payments. The “cash discount” is a clear sign of a company that is trying to weasel out of a contract.) These are the people who can’t make a living, not because some mean lawyer somewhere sued them for junk faxing, but because they aren’t willing to do their own work instead of making someone else pay their way.

Of course they complain about how innocent they are. You know the type; they’re never wrong, nothing is ever their fault, and if only everyone would give them a chance they’d be fabulously wealthy. A “chance”, for these purposes, is pretty involved. It requires:

  • Anything I need to make something work should be cheap or free.
  • If I make a gamble and lose, I don’t have to pay.
  • If I hurt other people, they can’t complain or demand compensation.
  • Recognition that, in any conflict, I am an innocent victim.

What’s scary is that they often seem to really believe this. From the idiot at Complex Capital who responded to a junk fax lawsuit by becoming a franchise for the junk faxing operation (installing hardware capable of dialing every number in the area code and sending faxes to every fax machine), to the lunatic Source Lending had sue my lawyer for suing his client, they’re all really that crazy. My latest (Integris Mortgage) is looking to be just as wacky and fun as the others.

The only problem with junk fax laws is that they have been weakened over fears of harming “small businesses”, who can’t afford to advertise. The same logic would have us allow a company that purchased something once from Office Depot shoplift from that store without penalty, because there’s no way they can afford to pay for office supplies.

So the next time you read something about how these mean, nasty, fax lawyers are picking on the little guy, think of that annoying kid in school who burst into tantrums when told to stop cheating. It’s the same person, all grown up and wearing a suit, but nothing else has changed.

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. Go out and get a hobby. Don't get upset. Just take my advice. The world is a mighty big place. Getting out and about will ease your pain. Life really is too short. Now get outa here and go play w your legos.

    — Trent Tuttenberg · 2007-01-27 22:23 · #

  2. Well, thanks, but this is my hobby. And, as it happens, it seems to be working; junk faxers are losing money and people I know who have financial problems are getting unexpected money. So everyone wins. Even the junk faxers, ultimately, win; suits against them give them one more chance to think about alternatives to being evil.

    — seebs · 2007-01-29 22:40 · #

 
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