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On money

The facts on trying to stop junk faxes

Published January 15, 2006

If you've got a fax machine, you've probably heard from companies that want to help you refinance your mortgage, lose weight fast and buy cheap office supplies. Some of them may even want to cut you in on the investment deal of a lifetime.

Since they use your phone line, paper and toner, junk faxes cost you money. They also can be downright annoying, tying up the machine when you're expecting a fax or waking you up in the middle of the night if your fax machine is at home.

What many recipients don't realize is that most junk faxes are illegal. If you've never had a business relationship with the sender or given permission to have faxes sent to you, the fax is against federal law. In addition, investment-related faxes may violate securities law.

Recipients often get very frustrated.

"I'm running out of ideas of how to get these guys off my back," complained one of my correspondents. He gets a regular fax touting investment opportunities in spite of repeated calls to the "opt-out" number printed on the fax.

Thankfully he's smart enough not to invest. Junk faxes are a popular way to promote what the Securities and Exchange Commission calls "pump and dump" schemes. Promoters try to manipulate the market for a thinly traded low-priced stock so they can sell their own shares at an inflated price.

Glenn Gordon, associate regional director for the SEC in Miami, says these faxes usually take the form of a research report or of "inside information" addressed to someone else and sent to you by what appears to be a mistake: "People see it and think they've gotten some sort of hot tip when in all likelihood they are potential victims of a fraud," Gordon said.

If you get junk faxes, here is what you can do:

1. Never buy anything promoted in a fax from someone you don't know. Assume it's a ripoff.

2. Complain. If you have no business relationship with the sender, complain to the Federal Communications Commission online ( or by calling toll-free 1-888-225-5322. If it's a stock promotion scheme, you also can complain to the Securities and Exchange Commission (

3. Consider a lawsuit. If you're so inclined, you can save your faxes and contact a lawyer who takes this type of case on a contingency basis, getting paid only if you win. A simple violation can be worth $500 per page.

"We normally don't have to go to trial on them," said Clearwater lawyer James Thomas, who said the offenders typically settle. He said companies that knowingly break the law can be hit for triple damages of up to $1,500 per page.

Thomas said he relies on an extensive database and "trade secrets" to identify offenders and then collect from them.

Read more about junk faxes at and

How much can I claim as a deduction on my taxes if I had 75 percent of my tuition paid by a Bright Futures Scholarship? I paid the remaining 25 percent. Also, can I claim the cost of textbooks?

The 25 percent that you paid, along with required student fees, may be used to claim one of these education tax breaks: the Hope Scholarship Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit or the tuition deduction. If you qualify for it, the Hope credit will be your best bet. If not, do the calculations both ways to see whether the Lifetime credit or the deduction will be a better deal. You don't have to itemize to take the tuition deduction.

You cannot claim the cost of textbooks for any of these tax breaks unless the money was paid directly to the college. However, if you received a payout from the Florida Prepaid College Program, books as well as reasonable room and board costs count as eligible educational expenses to help you avoid taxes on the distribution.

IRS Publication 970 Tax Benefits for Education is very helpful because the rules regarding these tax breaks are complicated. You can read it online at

Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, send it to On Money. We'll try to answer those we think are of greatest reader interest. All questions must be submitted in writing, but readers' names will not be published. Send questions to or Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

[Last modified January 12, 2006, 20:34:02]

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