TAMPA, Fla. — After years of annoying consumers, two years ago Florida lawmakers became more involved in the robocall game by cracking down on these nuisance calls and texts with the passage of the Florida Telephone Solicitation Act (FTSA).
The unopposed, bi-partisan bill required all telemarketers to get prior written consent before they could call or text consumers in the state.
The aggressive new Florida law also gave citizens, for the first time, the power to fight back through lawsuits if telemarketers didn't stop contacting them.
"It was helpful. It allowed me the opportunity to have a voice," explained Pinellas County resident Cheri Aul. She filed one of the first-class action lawsuits under the state's new FTSA law.
Aul sued David's Bridal in 2021 after the wedding gown company continued to hound her with dozens of unwanted text messages despite her repeated replies to stop.
Cheri spoke with Scripps station WFTS in 2021 and described how the company's text messages just wouldn't stop.
"Then the next day, I got another one. Now, months later, and it's continuing," she said shortly after filing the lawsuit.
Around the state, within a year of going into effect, Florida's new phone solicitation law proved to dial back the overall problem of unwanted calls.
According to data recently provided by Florida's Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, which tracks complaints about unsolicited communication, between 2021 and 2023 the number of robocall complaints to the department decreased by more than 80%. While complaints to the department about unsolicited communication also dropped by more than half.
Complaints from Floridians to the Federal Trade Commission show a similar pattern.
In fact, consumer advocates described Florida's 2021 FTSA as the tightest anti-robocall law on the books, having such a positive impact on consumers in the state, the FTSA became a model for other states looking to crack down on unsolicited calls.
"It was the most protective of consumers in the country," explains Tampa-based consumer attorney Billy Howard.
His firm, The Consumer Protection Firm, specializes in robocall litigation. He also represented Aul in her class-action lawsuit against David's Bridal.
"It was the gold standard. It was driving down robocalls and people were really happy because they could finally stop them," he explained.
But just when Florida's new robocall law was proving to do everything it set out to do for consumers, earlier this year that changed. State lawmakers brought back the issue. Only this time their focus seemed to be less on protecting Florida consumers and more on helping big businesses get back in the robocall game.
In Tallahassee this session, while debates over abortion rights, culture wars and guns dominated the headlines, big business and special interests quietly lobbied lawmakers to change Florida's telephone solicitation law because businesses claimed they were getting sued too much under the 2021 law.
HB 761 called for several changes to Florida's telephone solicitation law including:
- Narrows what constitutes an auto-dialer by requiring a platform to both automatically select and dial numbers to trigger liability
- Allow businesses to call or text consumers if they have an established business relationship with the consumer or in response to an inquiry
- Requires consumers who receive a text message in violation of the FTSA to reply "STOP" prior to filing suit
- Gives businesses a 15-day safe harbor period after a consumer sends a "STOP" message.
"The FTSA has huge unintended consequence of ensnaring legitimate businesses in frivolous litigation. This is literally bankrupting businesses," an attorney for Florida's Justice Reform Institute, an organization that advocates for changes in legal liability, said during the public comment section of a committee meeting back in March.
"I can tell you about case after case after case of these ridiculous lawsuits," another attorney told lawmakers.
But despite asking for data showing 2021 had caused a deluge of "frivolous" lawsuits, Florida Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Riverview, said he was never provided any proof.
Beltran, who represents parts of Hillsborough County, led the charge to get the 2021 FTSA law passed.
"I said, 'Show me one frivolous lawsuit.' They didn't bring one complaint in," he recently told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone during an interview about the motivations behind changing a law that seemed to work for Florida consumers.
Beltran didn't support the changes.
"We have gone against consumer protection and in favor of big business," he said.
Beltran stopped short of explaining why his Republican colleagues would amend a telephone solicitation law to favor businesses. But, campaign finance records may provide a clue.
In the months leading up to the 2023 legislative session, campaign finance records showed some of the same companies that lobbied for changes to Florida's telephone solicitation law also donated thousands of dollars to state Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, who introduced the more business-friendly version of the law in the Senate. Yarborough did not respond to a request for comment.
And even more money went to state Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, — the GOP chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. Rommel, a business owner, is also a big tort reform supporter who wielded the power to move forward changes to the FTSA. An office spokesperson told Rommel was not available for an interview.
According to campaign donations, in January, Rommel's PAC received $25,000 from the Committee of Automobile Retailers, a PAC led by longtime Florida lobbyist Ted Smith. He also heads the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, one of the organizations that lobbied hardest for changes to the law.
Smith explained why making the FTSA more friendly to businesses was one of his group's top legislative priorities this past session.
"It was significant because all of my dealers really want to do is their routine business practices," he said. "This change will now allow my dealers who have an established business relationship with you as a customer, to make a very important call or contact back to you concerning your car."
Smith was asked if his PAC's donations were a "pay to play" move to ensure the Legislature's super GOP majority would approve changes to make the FTSA more friendly to businesses.
"We contribute unabashedly to campaigns to help people get elected into their House or Senate seat," Smith said. "That's what PACs are all about. It's not about influencing votes. It's about assisting good people as they desire to get into office."
Their efforts worked.
By the end of the session, the Legislature passed a new, more business-friendly telephone solicitation law. Beltran was the only Republican in the House to vote against the bill.
"Everyone who didn't have their head under a rock knew about the anti-consumer effects of the 2023 phone solicitation bill," he said.
Consumer attorney Billy Howard said he believes the new law was driven by dollars.
"Money is the only thing that motivated the change of law. The Chamber of Commerce, the automobile industry and companies like David's Bridal," Howard said. "They want to text people and call people without their permission. That's the only motivating factor."
Aul's 2021 class action lawsuit against David's Bridal ultimately went nowhere. Two years after she filed suit, the company filed for bankruptcy. But not before it also spent thousands of dollars to hire its own lobbyist to change Florida's phone solicitation law.
It's a new law that Aul fears will bring back the unwanted messages she fought so hard to stop.
"If the businesses or politicians, whoever, if they're the ones making the decisions with money pushing for certain things, the consumer is the one that loses out in the end," Aul said.
To reduce unsolicited telephone calls and/or text messages, consumers can subscribe to Florida's Do Not Call list.