Prenda Law starts using robocalls to intimidate its targets. Will IARDC continue keeping its head in the sand?

Posted: June 17, 2012 by SJD in Prenda
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Prenda law, one of the sleaziest law firms in the US history, a brainchild of a divorce-lawyer-turned-copyright-troll John Steele, uses a super-secret homebrewed software, written by unlicensed wannabe forensic experts, to monitor bittorent traffic and harvest IP addresses of internet users who allegedly share allegedly copyrighted pornographic movies that belong to allegedly¹ legitimate rights holders. As soon as courts order Internet Service Providers to hand over the actual contact details of both hapless file-sharers and completely innocent people, this information is subsequently used to wrestle people into paying a “small” settlement amount, usually $3,000-$4,000, to avoid allegedly impeding costly litigation and the embarrassment of being publicly associated with pornography. Threatening letters and never-ending harassing phone calls comprise mostly lies, induce fear and suppress logical thinking in targeted citizens. As an unfortunate result, despite the obvious hollowness of the threats, many pay, regardless of guilt. Those who do not pay are almost never pursued in the court (although harassment calls continue for months). There are extremely rare cases when Prenda reluctantly files individual cases in an attempt to maintain an illusion of legitimacy.

Prior to the last week, these hollow threats and fear mongering were the responsibilities of Prenda’s paralegal Mark Lutz, who made tens of thousands of calls, reiterating the same script repeatedly. I bet that Mark stopped using phone to order pizza or taxi: if he would call those services, it would be very difficult for him not to tell a person on the other end of the line that he or she is named in a federal lawsuit, and should pay, or else… Anyway, these “live person” calls are considered an acceptable practice, and, despite sleaziness and lies featured in every call, technically are legal and not even in conflict with legal ethics.

However, as of the last week, Prenda Law started placing pre-recorded phone calls (“robocalls”) to the entire list of phone numbers they were able to acquire over the last year or so. If you read this blog’s comments and DieTrollDie’s blog, you are already aware of these developments. Today DieTrollDie posted a transcript of a Prenda’s automated call. So, Prenda’s fear-inducing engine was “upgraded” from a friendly-sounding dummy Lutz to an emotionless female-voiced robot: too much for Steele’s promise to hire an army of attorneys.

Download this sound clip.

In other words, as automating legal threats is probably unprecedented, Steele finally loudly proclaimed that he and his “law firm” rather belong to the crooked world of scammers, spammers and debt collectors than to the sophisticated legalese-speaking crowd. We knew that from the day one, but it is always nice to hear the confirmation from the subject himself.

Calls originate from the official Prenda phone number (312-880-9160) but the robot voice suggests calling Florida (305-748-2102): don’t even think about doing that!

Legality

Society tolerates unsolicited robocalls more reluctantly than “live” ones, and therefore many states regulate such calls. Every state has its own rule, and in some states certain types of robocalls are illegal. I received many emails from people all over US, for example from California, where automatic calls “may be made to those with whom you have an ‘established relationship’.” It would be quite a cynical stretch for a blackmailer to claim an “established relationship” with its victim. One email came from Indiana, where “automated calls are prohibited without prior consent or unless a live operator comes on first.”

As I mentioned above, it seems that the entire database of phone numbers that Prenda managed to compile using courts as their private goons, made its way into the auto-dialing system. As a result, not only Does in currently pending cases started receiving calls, but also those who were previously dismissed, even with prejudice. Another category of people who is not supposed to receive any calls, less automatic, is those who retained an attorney: it is a big no-no to contact a represented party directly. Lastly, the recorded message claims, “at first, you will receive time sensitive documents,” nonetheless I’m aware of one guy who is already being individually sued, and who received such a call: threatening him with the impending lawsuit is bizarre to say the least.

If you received such call, please visit a poll page and let us know what state you are in.
Don’t worry, I have no means to learn your IP address. Thank you!

Ethics

In addition to dubious legality, lawyers who automate legal threats seemingly violate the Illinois Registration and Disciplinary Commission’s Rules of Professional Conduct (Remember: Prenda Law is incorporated in Florida and Illinois, and both John Steele and Paul Duffy — the actual and the fake boss, respectively — are Illinois-licensed attorneys, thus these rules are mandatory for them to follow). According to IARDC’s Rules,

4.3 In dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not state or imply that the lawyer is disinterested. When the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the unrepresented person misunderstands the lawyer’s role in the matter, the lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to correct the misunderstanding. The lawyer shall not give legal advice to an unrepresented person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such a person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client.

A robocall is an explicit acknowledgement that an intended recipient is unrepresented. Otherwise, Prenda would brazenly violate one of the most enforced rules by deliberately bypassing a person’s attorney. Regardless of the wording of the call (and current wording violates both the letter and the spirit of the rule quoted above), “one-size-fits-all” one-way call inevitably runs afoul of this rule.

Further,

4.4 (a) In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person.

Sounds familiar? No comments necessary. I believe that other rules are violated as well (namely, 3.1 and 3.3). There is an interesting analysis of this subject posted by our friend on Current.com long time ago. Although this analysis may sound naïve from a legal pro’s viewpoint (and I admit that many of my speculations on the legal subjects may also be ingenuously dumb), the thoughts behind it are worth considering. In addition, ethics is not something that is easily codified, and common sense should always prevail over the letter of the rule if there is a conflict; in this respect, one does not have to have a formal legal training to tell right from wrong. When it comes to ethics, the principle “everything is allowed unless explicitly prohibited” is not applicable.

IARDC is an organization with a stated goal “to promote and protect the integrity of the legal profession.” So far, given apparent ostrich position when it comes to copyright trolling, IARDC deserves a solid B-. To the best of my knowledge (and according to John Steele’s words), many people complained to this organization, pointing to John Steele’s obvious disregard of ethics and immense harm to the reputation of the legal profession that he and his firm inflicts; nonetheless those complaints were either ignored, or declined². Probably prior to caring about the legal profession as a whole, IARDC should take care of its own integrity. I hope that the current event is a good (and maybe a critical) opportunity to crash trolls, as IARDC’s foreign colleagues, British regulators, did recently. If IARDC remains silent this time, many, including legal professionals, overwhelming majority of whom unambiguously condemns and despises the plague of bittorent “litigation campaign,” may perceive it really badly.

Expertise

There is a funny bit in the message: Prenda’s geniuses could not master a simple call script, and placed the intended recipient’s name where it should not be: “This is [name] with Prenda Law.” As a result, every call implies that Prenda employs each callee. This blooper leads to a not-so-funny observation: the very same people, who cannot figure out how to use a one-line script, claim that the software they produced to collect IP addresses is impeccable! Moreover, it is just a tip of the iceberg: for example, who will believe in a company’s expertise if they cannot fix the contact form on their website for more than half a year?

What should I do if I receive such call?


An educated robot demonstrates how to
properly respond when Prenda’s robots call

Many readers probably came here not to read these lengthy speculations, but rather in search for an answer to an important question: how do I react to these calls? A quick answer: ignore, and do not even think about calling back unless your lawyer does it for you. A long answer is distributed over posts and comments of this and other blogs. Your situation may be unique, and education is the key.

If you think that your time is too expensive to spend on research, you are probably rich enough to hire a lawyer. Hiring a lawyer is always a good thing, but if you cannot afford it, it is OK not to. Naturally, no lawyer would give you an advice to be on your own, and that is perfectly natural. Nonetheless, most attorneys who deeply understand this type of lawsuits would silently agree with me: unless your situation is complicated (e.g., you are a teacher, and your employment can be terminated if your name is associated with a teen porno case, even if you have nothing to do with it), spending money on a lawyer at this moment is as unreasonable as paying a ransom. Of course, if you are individually targeted, i.e. a lawsuit was filed against you personally or a very small group, and you have been served with summons, hiring an attorney is strongly advisable.

As always, I repeat: my advice is just a drop in the ocean of common sense: take my words with a grain of healthy skepticism, do your own research, weigh on opposing opinions, and act only when you clearly understand the situation.

If you are pissed off enough to strike back, you can help yourself and others by suing a robocaller in a small claims court. Since you are not found liable by any court (and most likely will never be), you owe absolutely nothing to Prenda. There are some encouraging precedents: for example, in the EDPA in Watson v. NCO Group, Judge Davis found that, in accordance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, an individual can sue the owner of a robocaller that harassed him over a debt he did not owe. Unfortunately, TCPA violation fee is only $500. Class action is also an option.

Post Scriptum

This is undoubtedly a very dumb move by Prenda. Another dubious move: Prenda recently filed more than 50 “individual” cases in California, Illinois and Florida, though, as expected, they did not name defendants: all the cases are “[Pornographer] v. Doe.” Same boring fear mongering, nothing serious, but it is a theme for a different post. Looks like Prenda is on a final looting spree before authorities shut them down for good and close a very embarrassing chapter in the history of the US jurisprudence.

Thanks to those who replied to my request and sent me their stories, Raul and every one who commented about these developments: you’ve provided a treasure trove of information and insight! Special thanks to TexJenM who provided the call recording.


¹I couldn’t avoid using so many instances of the word “allegedly” because every step of the moneymaking scam has its own, in most cases unacceptable, flaws:

  • “Allegedly share.” the false positive rate is huge, which derives from many factors: poor quality of the detection software, ever-growing use of wireless internet coupled with intentional or unintentional lack of password protection and relative ease of hacking even protected wireless routers, human errors etc. Some researchers estimate the error rate as high as 30%; my opinion — about 15%.
  • “Allegedly copyrighted.” Although recently Prenda and other trolls pay more attention to making sure that their clients’ “works” are properly registered with the US Copyright Office, there are plenty of cases in which said “works” were improperly registered, therefore rights holders are barred from claiming statutory damages (up to $150,000). Needless to say, trolls always request statutory damages, which is fraud.
  • “Allegedly legitimate.” Some clients (Lighspeed Media, hard Drive Productions, CP productions) are registered in Arizona, where pornography production is illegal. Many other companies are registered offshore with an apparent sole goal to facilitate mass lawsuits.
  • “Allegedly impeding.” Every Doe is eventually threatened with a personally tailored lawsuit. Less than 0.01% of these threats are fulfilled (with fanfares of course).

As a result, this “litigation campaign,” portrayed as the only way to fight piracy and reclaim revenues lost allegedly (sorry!) due to it, appears to be a sleazy, error-ridden, unethical, and, in some instances, illegal moneymaking conspiracy, sometimes compared to a Mafioso operation.

²Actually, I do not know what is worse: a careful troll who quietly terrorizes population and keeps low profile, or someone like John Steele, who, being emboldened by regulators’ indifference (which is mistakenly perceived as approval), earlier or later loses the sense of reality and commits irreversible and self-destroying actions that are too gross to be ignored even by hard-butted IARDC bureaucrats.

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Comments
  1. Anonymous says:

    don’t download porn but. . xD if they ever call me I’m so gonna say “BITE MY SHINEY METAL ASS” xD or is it KISS? i think he says bite but -nods- en educated robot huh? lmmfao. it turned out alright for me simply by ignoring it. but it’s thanks to those who didn’t ignore it that it turned out alright for lots of people.

  2. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  3. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  4. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  5. Raul says:

    Happy Father’s Day! (Trolls need to give their dads a large bottle of gin today to help them forget the disappointment in their son’s career choice having hoped they had chosen Carny Barker as a nobler career path).

    Great post which answers a lot of questions regarding Prenda’s questionable use of a machine to harass humankind. It is worth noting that Alton, IL IP attorney Bruce Burdick who is very familiar with Prenda has offered up his opinion regarding this matter (read the comments as well) http://www.avvo.com/legal-answers/is-it-ethical-for-a-law-firm-to-used-a-robo-caller-788966.html?published=true Likewise there is a small trend in New York where federal judges in the SDNY are refusing to give trolls access to phone numbers which results in trolls dismissing the lawsuits as they cannot use the telephone to cudgel Does http://ia601209.us.archive.org/21/items/gov.uscourts.nysd.394982/gov.uscourts.nysd.394982.docket.html

  6. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  7. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  8. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  9. Sloop John D. says:

    Leave it to Prenda to get something easy (automated voice system) all messed up. Silly trolls.

  10. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  11. [...] FightCopyrightTrolls highlights, such methods can raise a lot of controversy, mainly because their legality can be [...]

  12. [...] technique, though also one that competence indeed be opposite a law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are authorised in some states, they are not in [...]

  13. Raul says:

    Meanwhile back at avvo.com Chicago Class Action Attorney, Tara Leigh Goodwin, has this to say:

    “The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act likely does not apply because the “debt” they are seeking to collect is not a consumer debt. It is possible that they are violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, however. You should send them a letter demanding that they stop the robocalls, keep a log of their calls, and save any messages they leave. Then contact a consumer who specializes in consumer law and handles TCPA cases to discuss your specific facts and whether they believe a violation has occured. Most will provide a free consultation and take this type of case on a contingency basis. The TCPA provides for $500 in statutory damages for each call, whicih can really add up if they are making repeated calls.”

    http://www.avvo.com/legal-answers/is-it-ethical-for-a-law-firm-to-used-a-robo-caller-788966.html?published=true

  14. [...] technique, but also one that might actually be against the law, as Sophisticated Jane Doe points out. For example, while robocalls are allowed in some states, they are not in [...]

  15. Clulessdow says:

    I received a person call today from Prenda Law. He finally left a message after I not picking up call. He didn’t leave his name. Just said he’s from Prenda Law and he’s giving me a last change to settle…

  16. [...] fishing in the Southern District of New York. Judge McMahon is not impressedClulessdow on Prenda Law starts using robocalls to intimidate its targets. Will IARDC continue keeping its head in…Anonymous on John Steele and Prenda LawAnonymous on John Steele and Prenda LawRaul on [...]

  17. Anonymous says:

    Got another early morning robocall today, tally is up to 6 in the past 3 weeks. “It is clear. That you do not. Wish to settle. That is fine. We have more attorneys on staff. We have begun to file lawsuits. With individuals’ names in them. We will begin that process with you in the very near future. Etc etc.”

  18. Anonymous says:

    Dang it, I accidentally deleted a robocall i tried to record friday, 6/22/2012. it was at 0849 hours and california clearly do not allow robocalls from 9am to 9pm. hmmm.

  19. Thanks to TxJenM: I updated this post with a recording she sent to me.

    • TxJenM says:

      SJD, we recieved 2 more calls today, the first being before 9 AM. I guess trolls don’t know how to tell time (tee-hehe). I recorded both, and will continue to record every call that comes in (Prenda if your reading this – I plan on using these calls against you).

  20. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been getting a few robocalls, too. Definitely illegal in this state. AND most of them have been before 9 AM. More illegal activity.

    So, I’m wondering: with all the thousands of ‘shake down’ letters Prenda hands out, the plethora of repeated phone calls from Mr. Lutz or the robocalls, this should fit the FBI’s definition of terrorism where:

    “…the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

    I’ve read on a few blogs where people dread going to their mailbox for fear of getting more correspondence, or people get a sick feeling when they have to listen to their phone messages.

    • Raul says:

      Starting to look into this, in the meantime this link is for filing complaints with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois (ARDC): http://www.iardc.org/howtorequest.html

    • ShifferBrains says:

      So, you are going to complain to the mother of all extortion outfits about an extortion outfit. The bottom line is the FBI or any other governmental agency only gets involved if some innocent child or grandma type gets hurt and it makes mainstream news where a bunch of other homely Americans points there fingers and says the government should look into it. Outside of that, I wouldnt expect the government to give a shit, especially regarding porn. I mean seriously, no one wants to be associated with porn, and so thats why these trolls can pretty much get away with just about anything. They literally tapped into the perfect threat form.Hell, I wouldnt be surprised if they are intentionally coming up with these totally rediculous porn movie names just for threatening lawsuits. Where their game ends is when and if they reach enough peoples IP’s listed and it becomes mainstream enough, that the general population just shrugs it off as a scam and it no longer has it’s tangy taste. That is what will end this BS. When Joe Schmo preacher and community good guy get his IP involved and everyone just says, so, it’s happening to everyone now. That is when the trolls lose their might. So in reality, the more public attention that is brought to all this, the more it hurts them, not us. At some point, even they realize they will have to move on to another scheme, and no doubt it will be internet based and will probably have something to do with se4eding the internet with false links that take you to highly questionable sites that immediately log your IP, date, time, bla bla bla. Until the day comes that they have the technology to actually prove you did commit some crime online intentionally, it’s all just mafioso extortion, and these ass hat trolls are operating in the slimy shadows of their big brother, the US fucking Gov., currently the biggest and most corrupt racket on the planet. And the most sophisticated as well. I say sophisticated because 95% of all Americans dont even realize how the Gov is fleecing them of all their worth they have been trying to build all their lives. It’s the biggest scam job in the history of the world. And the only possible way you have of protecting yourself is to either leave the USA (probably the best choice), or convert all your assets to “real value” like gold, silver, food products and hide them. Of course the gov will in the end try all sorts of fancy BS to relieve you of those as well, but at least you have a chance. If all your wealth is paper then you are so screwed it isnt even worth talking to you. Damn, i really got fired up. Sorry

  21. In the meantime I updated the recording one with a better quality, and it’s also has the original blooper (“This is John Doe from Prenda”) that was removed after Steele read about it on DTD.

    Poll page now has 3 samples.

  22. [...] Prenda Law starts using robocalls to intimidate its targets. Will IARDC continue keeping its head in… [...]

  23. [...] Prenda Law starts using robocalls to intimidate its targets. Will IARDC continue keeping its head in… [...]

  24. [...] and it was a rolling joke all this time. At best, he was able to hire an army of robots to call and harass people in violation of multiple state and federal laws. Despite the public perception, it is very hard to [...]

  25. [...] a new way to game the judicial system and defraud citizens! Surprised? Did anyone really hope that robocalling was the final excrement of Steele’s voracious [...]

  26. [...] filed in courts across the country, Prenda has resorted to misrepresentations, halftruths, and questionable tactics, if not outright fraud, forgery, and identity theft. Until now, Prenda has gotten away with quite a [...]

  27. Anonymous says:

    This are fraudulent cases in which we fight separately, but they chase us individually. Why should we not unite and find some good lawyers to take it to the end and sue them back. Thousands of people are involved. If every one puts let say 100 bucks would be more than enough. We may be able as well to take our money as a compensation.

  28. […] Before and after Kelly started representing Adam, both Prenda’s paralegal Mark Lutz and robots were harassing Adam, pushing him to […]

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