(Palm Beach Post (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 13--WEST PALM BEACH -- It's bad enough getting automated calls from telemarketers on land lines, but when the recorded interruptions turn up on cellphones, it's uniquely annoying.
It's also illegal.
Citing the clear violation of a federal law that is designed to keep cell phones robocall-free, Verizon Wireless has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking at least $13.8 million from a handful of South Florida companies.
The lawsuit, which focuses on a Fort Lauderdale cruise line that earned an "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau, claims the companies have called nearly 6 million of Verizon Wireless' 100 million cellphone customers since mid-October. At times, the companies were making nearly 3,000 calls per minute.
The wireless communications giant is seeking an injunction "to bring an immediate halt to a massive ongoing illegal telemarketing campaign," according to the lawsuit filed Friday in West Palm Beach.
Verizon Wireless learned of the calls when its own employees -- including an attorney -- picked up their cellphones to hear the sound of a foghorn. It gave way to an automated voice offering them free cruises if they would take a survey. After taking it, assistant general counsel Anne Siotka was told she could claim her prize at the website surveycruise.com. Siotka tried without success.
The survey is part of a coordinated effort to get information from callers that is then shared with other businesses, the suit claims. For instance, after taking the survey and indicating he had diabetes, a Verizon Wireless executive received a telephone call from someone who claimed she was with Diabetes Help Now. He also got a phone call, offering him a free cruise for completing the survey.
Like others who have vented on online message boards and to Better Business Bureaus in at least two states, those who were able to register discovered that the cruises aren't free. Those who sign up are required to pay taxes, fees and gratuities, which can run into the hundreds of dollars.
In the last several years, Verizon Wireless has filed nearly two dozen lawsuits against companies whom it claims violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act either by sending unsolicited text messages or making automated calls to customers, said company spokeswoman Debi Lewis. However, she said, the South Florida calls have a disturbing twist.
"They're pretending to do a survey, and in doing so are collecting more information from our customers,"Lewis said.
The companies that are involved in the scheme, according to the lawsuit, are: Caribbean Cruise Line and Plaza Resorts, which share the same Fort Lauderdale office, according to state records. Others named in the suit are: Platinum Marketing Group LLC of Boca Raton, and Plaza Pharmacy LLC, a defunct Coral Springs company. United Public Opinion Group, which once had a Delaware address, and health-related firms, including the website diabeteshelpnow.com and Rapid Medical Alert, are also named.
While some of the firms appear to be related, none share corporate officers. A spokesman for Caribbean Cruise Line said it doesn't make solicitation calls. "We send invitations through the mail," said the man who identified himself as "Jerald Jean Ferrari," the "janitor." Of the suit, he said, "It sounds pretty dumb."
Daniel Lambert, a director of Plaza Resorts, declined comment, referring calls to an attorney. The lawyer didn't return either a phone call or an email Monday. Other companies could not be located or didn't return phone calls.
United Public Opinion Group, which is not registered to do business in the state of Florida, was among those who couldn't be located. It racked up complaints with the Better Business Bureau in Delaware in 2011 from people who said they complete surveys with the promise they could win a cruise. They said they were directed to a website but were unable to enter information to get the free vacation. On its website, the company says it specializes in "automated surveys."
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