Illegal telemarketing calls and text messages may be annoying, but they can also be turned into cash for consumers who decide to fight back.

Dealing with unknown callers who deluge us with scams about free vacations, lower interest rates and computer services is one thing (these calls are difficult to stop, and your best bet is to just hang up when you get one). But when big companies start peppering you with sales pitches or texts, the game changes considerably.

When Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) in 1991, the idea was "to protect consumers from unwanted telemarketing calls." That largely focused on calls that were automatically dialed and used recorded announcements (robocalls).

Related: Fight Back Against Robocalls

But the rules have since expanded to require companies — even companies you do business with — to get consumers' explicit permission to solicit them or use robocalls (such as for prescription pickup reminders). Calls and texts that don't meet that criteria are violations of the law.

When a lawsuit is filed, each violation — that's every call or text — carries a penalty of $500 to $1,500. The larger fines are for violations considered willful, for instance, if a company calls or texts you even after you've told them to stop.

Examples of violations

Consumers are afforded considerable protection under the TCPA to help them avoid nuisance robocalls and texts. Here are some examples of violations:

  • You receive calls that are intended for a person who might have had your number previously.
  • The caller accuses you of owing money that you don't.
  • You continue to receive calls or text messages from a business that you have asked to stop contacting you.
  • You receive calls prior to 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. local time
  • You are on the national Do Not Call registry and did not give explicit permission to be contacted.
  • You aren’t provided with an opportunity to opt out of future calls.

The law allows calls that don't have a commercial purpose or that come from a non-profit organization, healthcare messages from a provider and calls or messages alerting you to an emergency.

Related: How to Tell if a Charity Is Legit

How to file a complaint

Typically, companies are held accountable through the filing of class action lawsuits. In the past couple of years, some large corporations have settled such lawsuits with payouts of tens of millions of dollars.

Among them: AT&T ($45 million), Bank of America ($32 million), Capital One ($75 million), HSBC Bank ($40 million), and JPMorgan Chase ($34 million). Even sports teams, including the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Clippers, have paid out to settle TCPA lawsuits.

In the case of most of the big companies, violations alleged include calling wrong numbers and not deleting numbers after being told they were incorrect, as well as erroneously contacting non-customers. The sports teams were accused of overloading fans with text messages. The Los Angeles Clippers, for example, were accused of sending out unsolicited text messages and settled the case by agreeing to pay out $5.3 million in tickets and team merchandise.

Consumers have two routes to take action against companies that violate the TCPA: file a formal complaint with the government (either the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission) or connect with one of the many law firms that specialize in filing these types of actions.

The law firms are easy to find. They're constantly looking for plaintiffs and typically make public a list of companies they are trying to build cases against. In addition, numerous websites, such as TopClassActions.com and LawyersandSettlements.com, exist to connect consumers with lawyers seeking plaintiffs.

Usually, all a consumer has to do is fill out a simple online form to see if the calls or texts they've received catch the interest of class action lawyer.

Related: Protecting Yourself from Predatory Debt Collectors

Mitch Lipka is a consumer columnist and product safety expert. He was the 2011 recipient of the "Kids Best Friend Award" from Kids In Danger for his commitment to reporting on children’s product safety.