Sallie Mae Harassed Me with Robots

How does one get a restraining order against a robot, anyway?

It is 8 a.m. some week day in the summer and my phone is ringing. That 302 number, the one that has been calling me daily for months, is calling again. I hit the “Ignore” button.

9 a.m., and that number is calling again. I hit “ignore,” again. Ten o’clock, the same number. Ignore. 11 a.m. 12 p.m. 1 p.m, 2 p.m., every hour until 11 p.m. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. I ignore them all. I contemplate turning off my phone for a couple of hours for some peace and quiet, but I can’t today because I have a few interviews later. For my job, writing a paid blog post. But if one of those interviews happens to go long, that “call waiting” beep will chime to let me know that 302 number is on the other line. It is inevitable.

What happens when I finally pick up?

“Hello, who is this? Why are you calling me on the hour every hour?” I yell into the receiver. There is no answer, no message, no human or robotic voice, nothing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do hear an audible “click” after a few seconds, letting me know the call is over. It is pointless to pick up the phone because whoever is on the phone doesn’t actually want to talk to me. That’s not the point of the call.

This is the work of a Sallie Mae robot, dialing my number from the student loan giant’s Delaware office. I know it is Sallie Mae because I recognize the number, and when I call up the company to complain, a real live human woman tells me it is an autodialer. The audible “click” must be a mistake with the machine because it is supposed to play a message. These days when Sallie Mae calls an automated female voice usually plays a message.

Here is a video I made of their robocall call history, for the month of December.

One time they called me 5 times on a Saturday, between 8 and 10 a.m.

I’ve had trouble with Sallie Mae for years, but this robocalling stems from the company asking me to pay a monthly sum that I simply cannot pay, roughly $800, a sum that is double what I pay for rent. I can pay a fraction of what they want, but that isn’t good enough. They even robo-called me on Thanksgiving, and I’ll probably get a call on Christmas day.

Complaining helped reduce the frequency of Sallie Mae’s, but that 302 number is still calling me multiple times a day. “Stressful” is an understatement. This affects my productivity, my ability to write, to do my job, to carry on my daily business as a regular human being. It is one thing to forget for just one day how much you are in debt until a letter in the mail reminds you your student loan is past due, but it is quite another to be reminded multiple times a day, every single day, even on Saturdays and Sundays. It is psychological abuse, pure and simple.

This type of robocall harassment is also illegal. It violates the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991. I know, because a judge in 2012 said so, and forced Sallie Mae to pay $24 million in damages to a class action filing against this very thing. This year, Bank of America settled a class action for $32 million in damages for harassing customers with robots over cell phone.

“Nobody should be subjected to repeated, intrusive autodialer calls at all hours from their lender, especially on their cell phones,” said Jonathan D. Selbin, one of the lawyers from the firm that filed the suit against Sallie Mae, in a press release in 2010. I emailed Selbin, and he explained the TCPA to me like this:

“In 1991, Congress enacted the TCPA in response to consumer complaints about certain telemarketing practices, particularly the use of “auto-dialers” and “artificial or prerecorded voices.” These new technologies permitted companies to easily and cheaply call consumers over and over, constituting a greater nuisance and invasion of privacy than live solicitation calls. The TCPA makes it illegal for companies like Sallie Mae (or companies working on their behalf) to robo-call consumers on their cell phones to collect debts when they do not have prior express consent to do so. In the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, this sort of harassment became particularly pernicious as banks, credit card companies, and all sort of businesses worked to track down every last dollar allegedly owed to them, even if that meant robo-calling consumers on their cell phones hundreds of times when they had no permission to call these cell phones.”

A Sallie Mae loan officer I was able to get on the phone told me Sallie Mae “does not do anything illegal,” and they are calling me because my loans are defaulting. A Sallie Mae spokeswoman reached on Friday did not immediately comment on company policy.

Sallie Mae, you are ruining my life. I never gave you permission to robo-call me like this. Why are you still harassing me?