Bob Bulmash hates telemarketers–he calls them “the most annoying pest since the invention of the housefly.” But he’s getting back at them.

Since 1988 he’s run a national antitelemarketing organization called Private Citizen out of an office in his home in Naperville. It’s more than a full-time job–he thinks about telemarketers all the time. “When I’m feeding my children,” he growls. “When I’m taking a shower. When I work nights and sleep days and have to wake up in order to respond to the summons of the ringing bell of a telemarketer and be treated as nothing more than a Pavlovian dog responding to the ring of a bell.”

In the late 80s Bulmash was working as a paralegal and got annoyed that Illinois Bell let telemarketers make sales calls over its phone lines to his home. He said the telemarketers were invading his privacy, and he took his argument to the Illinois Commerce Commission and the Illinois attorney general. He says both put him off, insisting their hands were tied by bureaucratic rules.

Then one day a telemarketer told Bulmash the solution was to get his name out of the phone book. Delist it. That would make his number less likely to end up on telemarketing rolls.

But getting an unlisted number cost $12.50 a year, and Bulmash didn’t see why he should have to pay money so telemarketers couldn’t call him. “If you’re walking down the street and you don’t have a sign on your head saying ‘Do not pour water on me,’ then somebody walking down the street with a bucket of water can pour water on you lawfully?” he says. “Why should you have to tell somebody not to do something which they themselves know you don’t want to have done to you?”

He decided that telemarketers ought to pay for the privilege of entering his home, for using phone lines for which he was paying a monthly fee. Using that logic, he took a telemarketer to court in 1988. “And while the defendant was talking,” he recalls, “the judge stopped [him]–stood up, actually–and said, ‘I was called twice last night during the football game by guys like you. You lose. Pay Mr. Bulmash.'”

The amount turned out to be a buck–the cost of one month’s worth of unlisted phone service–plus $38 in court costs. But Bulmash didn’t care. “I was clicking my heels,” he says. “I was jumping in the air. I was doing handstands. Then I got a call from Sears.”

This time he handled the situation differently. He wrote a letter to Sears saying that he’d allow them to use his telephone, but only if they paid $100 each time.

Sears called again, and Bulmash decided that meant Sears had accepted his $100 offer. “I contacted Sears and said, ‘Here’s the call, here’s the time, here’s where they called from, here’s the people who called. You used my property. You accepted my offer. Send me a hundred bucks.'” Sears sent him $100.

That’s when Bulmash got the idea for Private Citizen. For a $20 yearly membership fee, he sends a do-not-call request to more than 1,500 of the biggest telemarketing firms in the country and all their branches, which includes companies such as Merrill Lynch and Century 21 Real Estate. He estimates there are 20,000 telemarketing firms in the country, including local fly-by-nights, though Amy Blankenship, director of consumer media relations at the 5,000-member Direct Marketing Association, says no one knows how many there are.

Bulmash believes Private Citizen has put an end to millions of “teleannoying” calls. It also offers tips on how to stay off telemarketers’ lists, such as by refusing to fill out warranty cards. But he thinks the real beauty of his organization is in another message it sends to the telemarketing firms: that its members are willing to offer telemarketers their time (answering the phone) and property (their phones) for $500 per call. Telemarketers are put on notice that if they call a Private Citizen member, they’re agreeing to pay that $500 fee. As Bulmash sees it, the 900-number industry generates billions of dollars a year using a similar legal logic.

So far, 7,500 people have signed up. But Bulmash believes he’ll enlist a lot more as word spreads that his organization can stop telemarketers–and that members have made money from ones that ignored the warnings.

They’ve made money because in 1991 the U.S. government passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Bulmash calls it the Telemarketing Callers Protection Act and grumbles that it has too many loopholes. He points out that the TCPA does nothing to limit telemarketing calls from research outfits or politicians or charitable or fund-raising organizations. But he acknowledges that it contains a few “gems.” For instance, the law prohibits telemarketers from calling you twice within a 12-month period if you ask to be placed on their do-not-call list. If the telemarketer calls a second time you can sue for $500. The law also says that telemarketers must send you a copy of their do-not-call policy if you ask for it, that telemarketers may call you only between the hours of 8 AM and 9 PM, and that telemarketers must tell you their name, address, and phone number if you ask. Each violation of the law is worth $500 to you–if you’re willing to take the telemarketer to small claims court.

If you decide to go to court you have to have the name and address of the telemarketer, and you have to have written down the date and time of every call you received from the firm, noting when you asked to be placed on its do-not-call list and when you requested a written copy of its do-not-call policy. If the telemarketer is a corporation, you need to know its registered agent, the entity in your jurisdiction that accepts legal documents on the corporation’s behalf. You then have to file forms, which cost $15 to $100, in your county clerk’s office. These and other details can be found in Bulmash’s booklet “So…You Want to Sue a Telemarketer.” He says that since 1996 his members have won a total of $1.1 million from telemarketers.

So far Barbara Joyce, a 59-year-old member of Private Citizen who lives in Seattle, has taken home $8,290. She says she used to get two to three calls a day. “I was very irritated that I had a phone in my home for my benefit that I was paying for,” she says, “and people were calling me at their convenience, pulling me away from whatever I might be doing, whether I was up to my elbows in Ajax scrubbing the shower or enjoying a lovely, leisurely dinner with my family. It didn’t matter to them what I was doing. They called me at their convenience to try to sell me goods and services that I had no interest in. And I wanted them to stop calling me.”

In 1995 she was watching Dateline when a segment came on featuring Bulmash. “I had no idea this federal law existed,” she says. “I had no idea there were any limitations on telemarketers. And I noticed on the wall in Bob Bulmash’s study it said 1-800-CUT-JUNK. I wrote that down, and I called him the next day.”

Armed with Bulmash’s information, Joyce was ready for the next telemarketer. She didn’t have to wait long. A lawn-service company called several times, and she quoted the telemarketer language from the TCPA. She persuaded the company it owed her $500 for the repeated calls, though she later learned she could have sued for more because the TCPA allows triple damages for harassment. “So I only collected $500 from them that year,” she says. “But the next spring when they called me again I collected $750 from them.”

Since then, Joyce has collected telemarketers’ money 14 times, usually without having to go to court. Once she even got a thank-you note along with her $500 check. It came from a cemetery that mailed out sales brochures, then followed up each mailing with a telemarketing call. When Joyce asked the telemarketer if he’d checked his do-not-call list before dialing her, he admitted he didn’t keep one. So Joyce sent a letter to the president of the company. “I said, ‘You know, you can’t just send out brochures and then just call everybody. You’ve got to look at your do-not-call list.’ He wrote back and said, Oh my God, what were we thinking? Thank you so much for letting me know, and here’s your $500.”

Joyce has been to court three times, but she’s never had to stand before a judge. “The telemarketers’ lawyers wait to see if you’re there, if you have your ducks in a row,” she says. “As soon as they see you’re ready to go to trial, they invite you out into the hallway and see what kind of settlement they can work out with you.”

She remembers that after one hallway settlement she was afraid the telemarketer’s check would bounce, so she took it straight to his bank to cash. “It was $1,065, and I stood there and watched the teller count out hundred-dollar bills,” she says. “It really hit home. I mean, she’s counting out hundred-dollar bills, and she gives me ten of them! And I thought, this is real money.”

Joyce says the money she wins from telemarketers is nice, but she believes she’s battling them for the benefit of all consumers. She recalls the second time an especially annoying telemarketer had to hand her a check. “The lawyer said to me with great indignity, ‘I hope you’re satisfied. This company has closed down their telemarketing operation because of you.’ And I’m going woo-hoo! I don’t know if he thought I was going to feel guilty about that, but the idea that a company would stop telemarketing, especially because of something I had done–I consider that a personal triumph.”

The Direct Marketing Association’s Amy Blankenship has heard plenty of antitelemarketing anger, but she thinks most people appreciate what telemarketers offer. “People are busy and don’t have time to shop,” she says. “Telephone marketing is the largest form of direct marketing, bigger than direct mail. Almost $612 billion last year as a result of phone calls–$354 billion of those sales come from business-to-business telemarketing. But $257 billion of it was earned from consumers receiving telemarketing calls. Look, people shop, and people rely on telemarketing calls.” She rattles off a list of the calls she believes consumers want: The newspaper call to remind you it’s time to renew your subscription. The cable company call to inform you about a special deal. The bank call to offer a higher rate on a CD or a lower rate on a credit card. She says telemarketers wouldn’t call so often if consumers weren’t buying.

Blankenship thinks telemarketers are misunderstood. “In the first place, they don’t want to bother people who don’t want to be bothered,” she says. “That wastes everybody’s time. It’s like Congress–nobody likes Congress, but everybody likes their congressman.”

Bulmash counters that the DMA is grossly inflating the amount consumers spend as a result of cold calls to their homes. And he says it’s simply not true that telemarketers don’t want to bother people who don’t want to be called. He points out that telemarketing companies buy lists of random phone numbers from firms that specialize in selling those numbers. And he says that since telemarketers are considered successful if they get a positive response from just one to two percent of all the people they call, they know that 98 to 99 percent of the calls are going to folks who don’t want to be called.

Asked whether people have a right to make a living marketing insurance or lawn services or cemetery plots or lightbulbs the most efficient way they can, Bulmash says, “Yes, people want insurance. Yes, people want a lightbulb. You know, people want liposuction, but that doesn’t mean a doctor can run into my house, throw me on the ground, and start sucking my fat out!”

He snorts. “Why is standing up to a telemarketer in any fashion anything that’s unusual? Everybody should be standing up to injustice. If you let injustice go, if you find an issue that you feel strongly about and you do nothing, aren’t you, indeed, part of that injustice?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.