The 64-year-old Alameda man is among more than 100 million Americans registered with the National Do Not Call Registry, which bans most telemarketing calls to people on the list.
The automated message Saturday sounded liked it was from a local carpet cleaning company. When Burnett tried to call the company back, the phone number wouldn't accept incoming calls.
Instead of shrugging it off as a minor annoyance, he filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and posted the company's phone number on http://www.800notes.com, a privately run database of suspected illegal telemarketers.
"If you don't fight back, nothing will change," Burnett said. "If you do fight back, something might happen. The statistics are with the people who complain."
Not content with complaining to the government, a small group of citizens has taken it upon themselves to personally punish telemarketers who skirt federal privacy law.
They've published online do-it-yourself kits, with suggestions such as blowing an airhorn into the phone when a telemarketer calls or carefully gathering evidence to build successful lawsuits against telemarketing schemes.
Last year, roughly 375,000 Americans filed 1.1 million complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about telemarketers.
Bob Arkow, a 56-year-old Santa Clarita phone technician, said he has sued dozens of telemarketing firms in the past decade, collecting about $25,000 in total under the Federal Communications Commission's Telephone Consumer Privacy Act, another federal law regulating telemarketing.
He was one of the first to join the National Do Not Call Registry, and he said he has changed tactics as the number of illegal calls dropped. Instead of suing, these days he tries to waste as much of a telemarketer's time as possible.
"They have a 3 percent success rate," Arkow said. "For every 100 people they call, they had to annoy all these people to get two or three sales. ... If every consumer causes a telemarketer to spend a minute on the phone, the industry will grind to a halt."
An activist in Sacramento launched a blog, http://www.killthecalls.com, after he won $6,160 from three small-claims lawsuits against telemarketers. Filing the suits cost him $195 in court fees and three hours of his time.
"If you think you're getting telemarketing calls illegally, use every resource at your disposal," Federal Trade Commission spokesman Mitch Katz said. "We can't go after every small company in the country. We just don't have the resources for them, because we go after companies that have thousands of complaints against them. But there are a lot of ways you can go about fighting back, if you will."
The Federal Trade Commission isn't the only government agency charged with policing the National Do Not Call Registry. At various times, the Federal Communications Commission and state attorney general's office investigate registry violations.
In the past four years, the state attorney general's office publicized two investigations against telemarketers. It settled one of those lawsuits in 2004 for $100,000.
A spokesman for a telemarketing industry group said most large companies now scrupulously abide by the registry.
The law dealt a heavy blow to traditional telemarketing -- strangers cold calling at dinnertime to sell products and services -- as large telemarketing firms found 40 percent to 50 percent of their contact lists slip away, said Bard Chodera, president of the West Coast chapter of the American Teleservices Association.
The Federal Trade Commission can fine telemarketers as much as $11,000 per illegal call, and have -- notably winning a $5.4 million settlement against DirecTV and several telemarketing firms working for DirecTV. That high-profile case in the early days of the registry made companies take notice.
"Those days (of cold calling) are long gone," Chodera said. "As we like to say, 'Nobody likes to be the lead story on "60 Minutes" anymore.' The companies that I know are absolutely anal about playing totally by the rules. They have full-scale compliance departments, they attend all the compliance seminars and actually overprotect and overscrub their lists."
In the past four years, the big telemarketing firms adapted by scaling back their cold calling sales centers and turning to e-mail and direct mail marketing, Chodera said.
The problem today, he says, is with "renegades" -- like the carpet cleaning service Burnett encountered -- who know the rules but intentionally break them.
By all accounts, the National Do Not Call Registry has been successful in significantly cutting down the number of unsolicited telemarketing phone calls. In a pair of government-commissioned surveys in 2004 and 2005, 92 percent of those polled said they had received fewer telemarketing calls after joining the registry.
But some calls still slip through. And as long as they keep coming to Burnett's house, he'll keep reporting them, even though he knows the government gets inundated with complaints.
"If you don't call or write to these agencies, they won't know that these bad guys are out there," Burnett said. "Folks like myself are the eyes and ears of these agencies, so they have to rely on our reports."
Reach Luke Stangel at 925-952-5027 or email@example.com.
NATIONAL DO NOT CALL REGISTRY
Congress enacted the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003, banning telemarketers from making unsolicited calls to people who voluntarily put their names on the list. Some types of telemarketing phone calls are still allowed, including:
How to stop telemarketing calls
Step 1: Register with the National Do Not Call Registry at http://www.donotcall.gov or by calling 888-382-1222.
Step 2: If you want to complain about a telemarketer, contact the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.donotcall.gov.
Step 4: For more information about suing telemarketers in small-claims court, visit http://www.killthecalls.com, http://www.tcpalaw.com, http://www.stopjunkcalls.com and http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs5-tmkt.htm.