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California woman dials up class action vs Chicago debt collector Harris & Harris over cell phone calls

By Jonathan Bilyk | Apr 15, 2016

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A California woman has dialed up a potential class action lawsuit against a Chicago-based debt collection firm she claims violated federal and California law when they called her mobile phone to try to collect debt on her unpaid traffic tickets.

On April 8, plaintiff Keisha Newsom, through her attorneys with the firm of Edelson P.C., of Chicago, filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Harris & Harris, of Chicago, asserting the collections firm owes her and potentially thousands like her some money for allegedly using improper tactics to acquire debtors’ mobile phone numbers and then repeatedly call them using automated phone dialing systems and prerecorded messages.

The complaint centered on Harris & Harris’ alleged use of so-called “skip tracing” method to learn debtors’ cell phone numbers. Skip tracing involves combing as much information about a person as possible, including phone databases, credit reports, job applications, government records and more, to locate someone believed to have “skipped” out to avoid obligations, such as unpaid bills or other debt.

In this case, Newsom alleged the techniques were among those employed by the Harris firm to use those “surreptitiously acquired telephone numbers” to use automated dialing systems to call debtors “by the thousands, sifting for payments with a host of automated, prerecorded voice messages.”

According to her complaint, Newsom did not pay traffic tickets she received in 2007 and 2008. Harris & Harris then began attempting to collect that debt. The complaint did not specify which agency passed on Newsom’s debt to Harris & Harris.

Newsom said she acquired a new mobile phone number in 2014 or 2015, and did not pass on that information to the Harris firm. Nonetheless, she said she received repeated automated calls from Harris & Harris in May 2015 concerning the unpaid traffic tickets.

According to the complaint, Newsom sent Harris & Harris a “cease-and-desist letter” in June 2015, “demanding that it ‘cease and desist all communications’ with her.”

However, the complaint said, Harris & Harris called again after receiving the letter.

The Harris firm “knew it was using an automatic telephone dialing system, knew that it was placing calls featuring an artificial or prerecorded voice, knew it was placing calls to (Newsom’s) cellular telephone number, and knew it was doing so without her prior express consent,” the complaint said.

This, Newsom alleged, meant Harris & Harris violated federal telecommunications law and California state law forbidding it from calling cell phones without the consent of the owner of the mobile number.

The complaint asked the court to certify classes of potentially thousands more plaintiffs: Those in the U.S., but outside California, who received calls on their cell phones from Harris & Harris using an autodialer, and another class including those who received calls on cell phones on which they received prerecorded messages. The complaint also requested the creation of two subclasses, specifically including those who received such calls in California.

The complaint asked the court to award damages of treble the statutory limit of $1,500 per call, under federal law. The California subclasses could also receive damages including the return of all money collected by the use of such robocalls.

The complaint also asked the court to order Harris & Harris to “disclose the names of any third-party companies involved in the generation of the telephone calls” that are the subject of the lawsuit.

Newsom requested a jury trial.

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Organizations in this Story

Edelson, PCHarris & Harris