Jewish World Review August 10, 2002 / 26 Menachem-Av, 5763

Jeff Gelles
Consumer Watch

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Consumer Reports

No simple solutions to the techno-nuisance of fax blasts -- If we think about it at all, most of us still marvel at the fax machine, a technology born in the early days of telecommunications that has lately become almost commonplace.

But to some, especially those plagued by junk faxes at 3 a.m., the fax can seem almost sinister - Satan's spawn, with an electronic beep.

Take Gene and Polly Friedman, who hear the familiar sounds in the middle of the night at their Ambler, Pa., home. Occasionally, they herald a missive from a family member in California or one of Gene's customers in Europe.

But much more often it's the fax version of junk mail or Internet spam: Stock tips. Insurance offers. Pitches for vacations to Disney World.

Sure, the Friedmans could turn the machine off, but Gene is loath to do so. As a sales rep, he worries his far-flung customers will turn elsewhere if they can't get through with orders.

Not that keeping the fax on all day solves that problem, either. Enough junk faxes, and the machine can run out of paper or toner, which also leaves his customers in the lurch. Besides, fax supplies aren't cheap.

Or consider the case of Melissa Vance of Moorestown, N.J., a victim of junk faxing who doesn't even own a fax machine.

Vance is haunted by a ghost: She has a phone number that must have once been assigned to a fax. She gets calls around-the-clock from somebody, or some machine, that thinks it still is.

One recent night, Vance was awakened by a round of calls at 1:30 a.m. and again at 5:45 - not one call, but a series each time. As any faxer knows, these machines are persistent.

Vance was reluctant to turn the phone off, since her young son was at a sleepover. Desperate, she finally stuffed it under a pillow.

What's a junk-fax victim to do?

Sadly, there's no simple answer to this nuisance born of technological progress.

The law is plain on the subject: Unsolicited commercial faxes are illegal - whether sent to consumers or to businesses - and have been since 1991, when Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. But enforcing the law has proved problematic from the start.

One reason is the fuzzy definition of "unsolicited" - a problem the Federal Communications Commission hopes to solve with a new rule, set to take effect Jan. 1, requiring a fax recipient to give advance written permission.

Currently, all that's required is an "established business relationship" - a standard so weak that a pizza joint can count a single order for delivery as grounds for years of fax blasts.

Some believe the FCC has gone too far the other way with its new rule, and they may be right. But a proposal to fix it, the Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2004, might as well be renamed the Junk Fax Loophole Revival Act.

Introduced by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the bill would reinstate the blanket business-relationship exemption. In return, it would offer bulk-fax recipients a bone: a mechanism to opt out from future faxes.

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For those hounded day and night, that's not enough. Bright lines should limit what defines a "relationship, and how long it's assumed to last.

Beyond that, all that's needed are a few well-tailored exceptions.

It's silly, for instance, to require written permission before a company can send a fax in reply to a prospective client's phone call. Nor should a professional association have to get each member's signature before it sends out, say, an offer for group insurance.

But the chief goal shouldn't be to ensure the future of fax-blasters. It should be to spare consumers and businesses from unwanted junk.

Meanwhile, some tips for coping if your fax machine seems possessed:

Complain to the FCC. Last year, the agency averaged about 1,500 junk-fax complaints a month. Over the years, it has issued 222 citations for violations, and followed up in half a dozen cases, with fines totaling $6.9 million. The largest, against California's, was for $5.4 million. To file a complaint, go to or call 1-888-225-5322.

Take the faxer to court. The 1991 law gives junk-fax recipients the right to collect damages of $500 per violation (tripled for a willful or knowing violation) through lawsuits that often can be filed in small-claims courts.

Don't expect to get rich doing so, warns Robert H. Braver, of Norman, Okla., a junk-fax fighter who says he has recovered $60,000 in about 35 cases. This tends to be a course people take for principle, not for profit.

Still, Braver, who runs the Web site, says his suits invariably scare away junk faxers. With local companies that are simply ignorant of the law, he adds, a phone call may be all that's needed.

Other help. For more information, go to To contact a Denver law firm that says it will pay you up to $25 apiece for your junk faxes and use them to help enforce the law, go to To deal with calls to ghost faxes, here are two tips that rely on your having a computer: Download a phone "out-of-service" tone at and record it at the start of your answering-machine message, to fool the sender. Or set the computer to receive a fax so you can trace it.

There's no good reason a fax should become a waking nightmare.

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