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By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/6/2006 11:58:36 AM ET 2006-09-06T15:58:36

Jason Catlett hates junk faxes. He calls them “postage due marketing.” Catlett, who founded the Web site junkbusters.com, says an unwanted fax ad is even worse than an unwanted telemarketing call.

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“Not only is it an interruption,” he says, “but you’re paying for the paper and toner to print the ad.”

Expect to see more unwanted faxes, Catlett predicts, because of new federal rules that took effect last month. Congress ordered the changes when it passed the deceptively named “Junk Fax Prevention Act” in July 2005.

In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission responded to consumer complaints about unwanted fax ads by adopting regulations that required a company to get permission — in writing — before faxing an unsolicited advertisement.

Businesses told Congress the rule was too restrictive and they lobbied for a change. The Direct Marketing Association is one of the groups that pushed to have the permission-in-writing rule removed.

Jerry Cerasale, the association’s senior vice president, says the industry is “totally opposed” to junk faxes that pitch bogus products and fraudulent schemes. But he argues legitimate companies need to communicate this way. “If you work with fax,” he says, “you should be able to keep that business relationship going.”

Getting permission is easier
By passing the Junk Fax Prevention Act, Congress gave business what it wanted — an easy way to get permission to fax ads with nothing required in writing.

The FCC’s new rules assume you’ve given permission if: 1) you have an “established business arrangement” with the company, and 2) you’ve given them your fax number voluntarily.

You establish that business relationship, the FCC says, when you make an “inquiry, application, purchase or transaction regarding products or services” offered by that company.  Note that you don’t have to buy anything, just contact the company. Call a bank to get the current CD rates or a lawn service to ask for a price quote and you’re considered a customer.

And get this. You can voluntarily provide your fax number to the company even when you don’t specifically give it to them. If your fax number is in your business directory, advertisements or on your Web site, the new rules say they can use it — unless you specifically say you do not accept unsolicited advertisements at that fax number.

Attention business owners: You might want to add that language to your Web sites and publications.

What’s it like being bombarded with unwanted faxes?

Deanna McAllister, who lives near Seattle, says junk faxes have been a constant annoyance. Most of them pitch bogus investments or too-good-to-be-true vacation offers. McAllister says “it wasted a lot of ink and paper,” plus the late night calls woke her up. 

So she now does what a lot of people do. She keeps the fax machine turned off and only turns it on when someone calls to say they need to send her something.

McAllister’s sister Tammy Miller is also “sick and tired” of junk faxes. She runs a small specialty store so she needs to leave her fax machine turned on. “Lots of times the machine will be out of paper in the morning,” Miller says, “because I get more junk faxes than regular faxes.”

Stopping unwanted faxes
The new rules do require companies that fax ads to give you a way to opt out of future faxes. The FCC says that notice must be “clear and conspicuous” on the first page of the ad. It must include a telephone number, fax number, and a cost-free way (such as a Web site or toll-free number) to contact them 24/7. The company must honor your request within 30 days.

Most junk faxes are sent out by companies called fax blasters. “They’re the ones that really cause headaches for people,” says Linda Sherry with the group Consumer Action. Fax blasters have a track record of getting around the rules. Many are now based in Canada, making it harder to prosecute them.

Contacting a fax blaster isn’t always easy. Deanna McAllister tells me she called the phone numbers listed and could never get through. “You can never ever call that number and get your fax number removed,” she said.

And even if you do get through, there’s no guarantee the unwanted faxes will stop. Consumers constantly complain to the FCC about that. 

It is still illegal for companies to send unsolicited ads to any fax machine (business or residence) if they do not have an established business relationship with you and did not get your fax number voluntarily (as defined by the new regulations). It’s also against the law to continue sending fax ads more than 30 days after you’ve requested they stop.

If you receive illegal fax ads, file a complaint with the FCC. If you can figure out who is sending them, you can sue in state court. The law allows for up to $500 per violation. The court can increase that to $1,500 per violation if the judge finds that the company willingly or knowingly committed the violation. Many people have sued and won significant sums of money.

“Isn’t it annoying that you actually have to go to this trouble and expense to avoid something that should be illegal in the first place?” Consumer Action’s Linda Sherry asks. “It’s really irritating.” I agree.

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