Peeved at Auto-Warranty Calls, a Web Posse Strikes Back
By GEOFFREY A. FOWLER
Wall Street Journal
MAY 15, 2009
Millions of Americans have gotten the call.
"This is the second notice that the factory warranty on your vehicle is about to expire," says the recorded voice at the other end of the line. Most people hang up. The machine calls again later.
Michael Silveira decided to strike back. The 22-year-old laboratory technician, who doesn't own a car, says he was getting unsolicited sales pitches as often as twice a day on his cellphone.
So last week, Mr. Silveira began calling back an auto-warranty company that has become the focus of an Internet crusade. He left it voice-mail messages that contained nothing but a recording of Rick Astley's 1987 hit song "Never Gonna Give You Up."
Using phone numbers for Auto One Warranty Specialists Inc. that users posted to a Web site called Reddit.com, Mr. Silveira joined dozens of activists who have peppered the warranty company with messages including elevator music, threats and offers of rude services.
"I thought, if you get a bunch of people together, you could blow up their voice-mail boxes," says Mr. Silveira.
The recipient of their efforts is David Tabb, the 42-year-old president of Auto One, an Irvine, Calif., warranty company with 60 employees. He says Reddit users overloaded his phone lines with computerized calls, changed voice-mail greetings on his company's system, and even threatened arson. People have been conspicuously honking outside his home, he says. To cope, he redirected some of the numbers that activists had been calling.
All of this happened, he says, with no evidence that his company had done anything wrong. "Ninety percent of the people complaining about my company have never been contacted by my company," he says. He hires third-party marketing firms to call consumers -- but says he pays a premium to ensure they call only people who have opted in to receiving solicitations. Many warranty calls come from so-called "ghost" phone numbers that make it nearly impossible to determine their origin. Mr. Silveira can't be certain Auto One is behind the calls he got, but he says he came to believe it was responsible for some of them after reading the Reddit postings.
Like most vigilantes, consumers who decide to take matters into their own hands with auto-warranty touts are in legally murky waters. Leaving harassing messages could be considered a threat, and might be prosecuted by authorities in some states.
Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who because of complaints has been looking into the marketing practices of Auto One and other warranty marketers for more than a year, warns that consumers should "avoid breaking the law simply for revenge."
But Mr. Blumenthal, who has received warranty-expiration calls several times himself, is sympathetic to the vigilantes. "The telemarketers would be on very shaky ground making a complaint about the use of practices directed against them that they use on consumers," he says.
A lot has changed since angry consumers sought revenge on mass marketers by taping postage-paid return envelopes to bricks and putting them in mailboxes. A new generation uses online mobs to launch swarm-style attacks aimed at shutting down Web sites or at disrupting business in ways that an individual never could. Sites such as whocalled.us collect data about certain marketers to warn other consumers.
Marketers hired by auto-warranty companies use computers to automatically send recorded messages to lists of U.S. phone numbers, sometimes including cellphones. People who listen to the calls and want to buy auto-warranty plans are then forwarded to the warranty firms, according to Mr. Tabb.
The Federal Trade Commission and many states compile "do-not-call lists" that telemarketers are supposed to consult before trying to contact consumers. Autodialers, automated messages or computerized messages may not be used to contact cellphone users under any circumstances, according to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.
On Thursday, the FTC filed a complaint against three companies -- not including Auto One -- that have placed more than a billion so-called "robo-calls" to sell extended warranties. They are seeking a temporary restraining order against these companies, and seeking redress for consumers who bought the extended warranties.
Auto One's Mr. Tabb says some unscrupulous marketing companies will buy underground lists of phone numbers and then call consumers even though they are on do-not-call lists. "If people have problems with these robo-calls or buying data, the focus of attack needs to be on these marketing companies, not on me," he says.
Mr. Tabb says that in 2007 his company paid an $8,000 fine for working with a marketing firm that violated do-not-call lists, but he wasn't aware that company was breaking the law when he hired it. In an unrelated matter, Mr. Tabb pleaded guilty in 2000 to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and tax evasion for his role in distributing counterfeit Hollywood and sports memorabilia and was sentenced to probation. He declined to discuss that case.
The Auto One campaign took root on Reddit, a social media Web site owned by Condé Nast Publications on which users post links to content. On May 5, a Reddit user identified only as "syntax_erorr" launched a discussion titled, "Want the phone number to the 'Your car's warranty is about to expire' people?" After one call, the Reddit user stayed on the line and managed to get a name and number -- for Auto One, he says -- from a salesperson.
The Reddit user posted two phone numbers for Auto One. "Please call them 20, 30, hell, 50 times a day," this person wrote. "It's what I did and finally the guy said, 'Look, we will take your number off our list just please stop calling here!'" The Reddit user didn't respond to an interview request.
Within hours, hundreds of messages had been posted in response to the appeal. One participant, who asks to be identified only as Justin, says that the Reddit community never harmed anyone. "If we have an opportunity to at least annoy the hell out of them, then why not," he says.
"We're currently investigating the thread in question, taking action where we deem appropriate," said Reddit product manager Alexis Ohanian.
According to comments posted on the site, campaigners eventually figured out how to gain access to Auto One's voice-mail system. They began work on a virtual map to extensions 300 through 490 on the system, and digging through saved messages for more information on the company -- a legally dubious act.
A Moral Quandary
They also came upon Auto One's physical address in California and posted it on Reddit. That created a moral quandary among members of the community about what to do next. One campaigner, who lived nearby, offered to go to the office and take photos of people who work there.
Mr. Silveira reckons they should just catalog information they've gathered about the company, hoping that it can help others. "The Internet is evolving, and is allowing for groups of people to do their own justice socially," says Mr. Silveira. "It's as if we all live in one small town in an old Western movie, and once your picture goes up on the bulletin board as wanted for some deplorable crime, nobody forgets."
Mr. Tabb, on the other hand, says Reddit users have jumped to conclusions. "They played judge, jury and executioner on a company that they haven't even proven has done anything wrong," he says.
But he empathizes. He says he understands why some people get upset about the unsolicited calls, adding that he himself has never received an auto-warranty call.
Joseph De Avila contributed to this article.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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