This story was part of a submission that won 2014 Third-place Business Writing, Class B, Florida Press Club.
One of the business owners decided to harass me on the phone and online after this story.
July 17, 2013
Tampa Bay companies dominate top Do Not Call complaints
By Charles Schelle, firstname.lastname@example.org
MANATEE — Four of the top five companies in the state that logged the highest complaints for violating the Do Not Call list are based in Tampa Bay, and the state is aggressively pursuing violators.
Telemarketing is a regulated business in Florida that requires the company and each salesperson to be licensed, and companies have restrictions on when and with whom they can do business, said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which handles the state’s free Do Not Call list.
“If you’re on the Do Not Call list, companies are not allowed to call unless you’ve done business with them within 18 months,” Gillespie said. Even if your name is not on the list, businesses cannot call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., she said.
The Herald requested the five companies in the state that have the most Do Not Call complaints in the last fiscal year from the Department of Agriculture, and the majority are based in Tampa Bay:
1. Travel Link Corp., 5700 Memorial Highway, Suite 221, Tampa
2. Evo Security, 1940 Harrison St., Hollywood
3. Mortgage Investors Corporation, 6090 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
4. Morgan Air Conditioning, 14807 N. 12 St., Lutz 5. Harrell Home Services, Inc, 6015 Benjamin Road, Suite 324, Tampa
Going after violators
Brainard McKinley Morgan, 45, was arrested Thursday at Morgan Air Conditioning, on charges of operating an unlicensed telemarketing business and employing at least seven unlicensed salespersons, according to the Department of Agriculture. The company had unlicensed salespersons calling residential homeowners in order to obtain new customers, according to the state.
A cease and desist order was issued to the business and to the seven salespersons. An administrative fine of $19,500 for telemarketing and Do Not Call violations was also issued to the business.
The state’s Ag Law Enforcement investigation into Morgan Air resulted in 14 arrests and more than $75,000 in fines for Morgan Air and other telemarketers, identifying several telemarketing rooms in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties that were not appropriately licensed, according to the state. The company had 107 complaints against it in the last fiscal year, Gillespie said.
“This is just one example of our department’s priority to protect consumers across the state,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam. “We will not tolerate businesses that attempt to take unlawful advantage of Floridians.” The state has an active lawsuit against Mortgage Investors Corp., which specializes in mortgages and information for veterans, and is seeking a $15,000 fine. The company had 84 recent complaints, according to the state. A lawyer representing Mortgage Investors Corp. did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story.
The majority of the complaints came from families in Cape Coral and St. Petersburg, but also included complaints lodged by Sarasota and North Port families, according to the complaint filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court.
The state also arrested Jason Bortz, 38, owner of Interactive Study Systems on Friday, 3985 Gateway Centre Blvd., Suite 200, Pinellas Park, charging him with 10 counts of employing unlicensed telemarketers, according to the Department of Agriculture. Twelve of Bortz’s salespersons were also arrested, 10 of them charged for unlicensed telemarketing and two others on unrelated outstanding warrants, according to the state. The business was fined $56,000, according to the state.
Travel Link, which sells vacation packages, has logged 410 valid Do Not Call complaints since 2010, according to the state, and 278 complaints in the last fiscal year alone. The Department of Agriculture’s legal department is examining both Travel Link and Evo Security, Gillespie said.
Travel Link told the Herald someone would call a reporter Tuesday about the complaints, but failed to return the call by deadline.
A back-end telemarketing manager at Evo Security told the Herald that the company no longer does outbound calls and refused further comment for this story. The Hollywood-based company had its telemarketing license cancelled, according to the state, and had 141 complaints in 2012 alone, and 150 in the last year.
Harrell Home Services, which sells air conditioning has three administrative complaints, Gillespie said, but is not under an active investigation. The state has logged 44 valid Do Not Call complaints in the last year, Gillespie said.
Harrell’s owner Justin Harrell told the Herald that he takes the complaints and alleged violations “very seriously.” “All of our guys have licenses, and we have a license ourselves,” Harrell said. “We purchase the state Do Not Call List as well as the federal Do Not Call list, and we take these matters very seriously.” Each complaint the state receives is reviewed and stored, and when an investigation is launched, the state can request phone records from the companies and ask for proof companies did business with the people they are calling, Gillespie said.
If the complaints are serious, such as with Morgan Air Conditioning and Interactive Study Systems, jail time is possible, Gillespie said. Smaller complaints are done by administrative hearings.
Do Not Call registration A new state law in effect July 1 prohibits telemarketers from making outbound calls to consumers who previously told the company they do not wish to be called.
The list is updated each quarter, and if consumers sign up by Aug. 25, their name will appear on the list for the quarter starting Oct. 1.
Do Not Call complaints have been the top complaints received by the Department of Agriculture since 2011, Gillespie said. Telemarketers can be fined up to $10,000 per violation, according to the state’s website, but can seek injunctive relief.
Florida residents can sign up at 1-800-HELP-FLA or 1-800-FL-AYUDA for Spanish speakers, or visit 800HelpFla.com, and can also lodge complaints at the number and website.
The service is free with more than 500,000 users, she said. Phone numbers stay on the list for five years. A free federal Do Not Call list is also available at DoNotCall.gov, and is investigated by the Federal Trade Commission. Consumers must sign up for each list separately.
The advantage of the Florida list is it takes as little as three complaints for an investigation to be launched whereas federal complaints have a higher threshold, she said.
Consumers can also visit 800HelpFla.com to confirm whether businesses are licensed for telemarketers and to see how many complaints they received.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.