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How You Could Get $500 Per Call for Those Unwanted Messages Six Years Ago

Did you get a telemarketing robocall five or six years ago offering a "free cruise" in return for taking a short survey? If you did, and you can prove it, you can get about $500 for each one of those illegal calls.

Florida-based Caribbean Cruise Line and its two co-defendants — Vacation Ownership Marketing Tours and The Berkeley Group — have agreed to pay between $56 and $76 million to settle a class action lawsuit that claimed they made millions of unwanted and illegal robocalls between August 2011 and August 2012 in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

More than a million people may be eligible for that money, but here's the catch — you have to file a claim in order to be included in the settlement. And the deadline is February 1. You can do that online at FreeCruiseCallClassAction.net.

The beginning of the end for robocalls? 0:59

"It is the largest TCPA settlement ever," said Chris Dore with Edelson PC, the Chicago law firm that brought this case. "The money is available, but it does require consumers to take the very easy step of filling out an online claim form."

Regina Stone, who lives in Louisiana, is one of the named plaintiffs in the class action suit. She told NBC News she still remembers getting those robocalls.

"They'd call my cell phone and they'd call my landline at all times of day and night. The calls just would not stop," she said. "It was more than annoying, believe me, and I was furious because I couldn't get them to stop. They shouldn't have done this. No one is above the law."

The Back Story

Caribbean Cruise Line launched a major robocall campaign in August 2011 to landlines and cellphones. The automated messages told people they would get a free cruise if they took a short survey. Here's an example of one of those calls:

"Hi, this is Bill from Political Opinions of America. This upcoming presidential election is the most important election in modern history. Your opinion and your vote matters. We are conducting a short 30-second survey and would like your valuable input. For participating, you will receive a two-day cruise for two people to the Bahamas at no charge, courtesy of one of our supporters."

Click here to listen to one of those calls.

Legitimate political survey robocalls to landline phones are exempt from the TCPA because they do not attempt to sell anything. In 2012, new FCC rules prohibited most robocalls to cellphone numbers without the consumer's prior written consent.

The lawsuit claimed Political Opinions of America was "not a legitimate survey organization or even a real company. "It was simply a made-up name, a pretext for unsolicited telemarketing."

Those who responded were connected to a live operator at Caribbean Cruise Line who attempted to upsell them a more expensive vacation package that required the travelers sit through a timeshare presentation at a resort owned by The Berkeley Group.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Illinois, claimed the survey was simply a smokescreen for a sales pitch and therefore was not exempt from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Related: Feds: Caribbean Cruise Line Made 'Billions' of Illegal Robocalls

"Not only is the 'free' cruise not free, the survey is simply a marketing tool with no legitimate political basis," the plaintiffs wrote in their complaint.

In September, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly, agreed. In his decision, Judge Kennelly wrote: "This is a violation of the TCPA, irrespective of whether the calls were made by or on behalf of a tax-exempt nonprofit, were made for a political or non-commercial purpose, or did not make reference to or play long enough to mention defendants' vacation products."

Caribbean Cruise Line and its co-defendants all deny the allegations that they violated the law by placing these robocalls. And the court, in accepting this settlement, did not decide whether they did anything wrong.

NBC News contacted the lawyer for Caribbean Cruise Line, who declined to comment.

Image:FTC Seal
The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on robocalls. Kiichiro Sato / AP

How Do You File a Claim?

The lawyers in the class action lawsuit have the names of about 900,000 people they know received the bogus Political Opinions of America robocalls. These people have already been sent a notice or contacted by email about the settlement.

"Tens of thousands have responded so far and we believe there are a lot more individuals out there who can be part of this settlement," attorney Chris Dore told NBC News.

Even if you weren't contacted by the settlement administrator, you may still be included if:

  • Your landline or cellphone number appears in the defendants' records
  • You received one of these automated survey calls and one of the numbers on this list is in your phone records
  • You believe you got one of these calls and can prove it with some type of documentation, such as caller ID or phone records, a recording of the call or even a screen shot of the call log on your cellphone

If you received three calls or fewer and your landline or cell number is in the defendants' records or you submit proof you received the call, it's presumed that you received three calls. You will receive payment for three calls (up to $1,500), unless challenged by the settlement administrator.

If you received more than three calls and can prove it, you can file a claim for each one. Some people, Dore said, have already filed claims for more than 10 calls.

Keep in mind: You didn't have to take the survey or sign up for the cruise to be part of this settlement. That's because the act of placing these robocalls is a violation of law. You can find out more about the settlement and fill out a claim form at FreeCruiseCallClassAction.net. If you need help filing a claim or obtaining phone records, call the claims settlement administrators at 866-354-3015.

A final settlement approval hearing is set for Feb. 23 when the court is expected to officially sign off on all of this.

Clamping Down on Illegal Robocalls

Just last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced that it had shut down two operations responsible for billions of robocalls since at least 2012, including more than 70 million calls to numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.

One group used the illegal robocalls to sell home security systems. The other sold extended auto warranties, search optimization services and home security systems.

"The law is clear about robocalls — if a telemarketer doesn't have consumers' written permission, it's illegal to make these calls," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. "The FTC will continue working hard to put a stop to telemarketers who ignore the law."

How to Block Robocalls

A variety of apps and services — many of them free — make it possible to reduce or eliminate unwanted robocalls on some landline phones and all mobile devices. They work by blocking the call, alerting you to a possible robocall or forwarding suspicious calls to voicemail.

Related: Google Wants to Thwart Those Annoying Robocalls

One of the oldest robocall blockers, Nomorobo, is free and works on Internet-based phone networks. Nomorobo recently released an app for both Android and Apple smartphones. It's $1.99 a month, after the 30-day free trial.

Other popular apps for both Android and Apple phones include: TrueCaller, Hiya, and PrivacyStar. Note: These apps all have access to your phone's contacts.

The Federal Trade Commission has a tip sheet on reducing unwanted calls. CTIA, the wireless industry association, has a list of apps that block robocalls organized by operating system.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.