Bill aims to disconnect telephone solicitors

State would maintain a do-not-call list

February 06, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Maria DiGiovanni is sick and tired of dashing upstairs from her basement to answer the telephone, only to get a sales pitch for something she doesn't want.

From midmorning through dinner time, the phone rings, tearing the 39-year-old Mount Airy woman away from her two young children and her gardening. Callers offer her credit cards she already has, insurance she doesn't need or a sure-fire remedy for a wet basement that isn't.

Not everyone is willing to take no for an answer. "I had one get real nasty and hang up," she said last week.

Lawmakers in Annapolis, many of them bothered by the same telemarketers, are considering a legislative shield against the unwanted calls that have transformed Alexander Graham Bell's marvelous invention into an instrument of torture in many households.

A Senate hearing is scheduled for Tuesday on a bill that would let residents put their home numbers on a state-maintained do-not-call list. Any for-profit company or person trying to sell goods or services over the phone would have to steer clear of the listed households or face a possible penalty of up to $1,000 per offending call.

"We're hearing from a lot of people that they are being constantly interrupted by the phone ringing in their homes and telephone solicitors are on the line," said Sen. Jean W. Roesser, a Montgomery County Republican who is the bill's chief sponsor. "People would like somehow to get a handle on this."

Her bill alarms businesses that depend on phone sales, from AT&T and MCI-WorldCom to fitness clubs and newspapers and small, family-owned jewelry stores. Their lobbyists are burning up the phone and fax lines in an effort to block the bill, just as they have previous attempts by Maryland legislators to regulate telemarketing.

A couple of businesses have threatened to move jobs out of the state if the legislation passes.

"If it becomes more difficult for us to do business in Maryland, that could mean good things for Virginia," said Elena French, an MCI spokeswoman. The long-distance company, which hopes to begin selling local phone service soon -- by phone -- has about 1,000 employees at its regional telemarketing center in Hunt Valley.

Bally Total Fitness Corp., a health club chain, has warned that it will consider moving its nationwide telemarketing operation -- with 600 jobs based in Towson -- out of the state if the bill is passed.

Widespread backlash

Roesser's bill and a handful of related measures are part of a nationwide backlash against telemarketing, from the Sunday morning calls to the irritating hang-ups just as the caller picks up the phone. Fed-up sales "prospects" are demanding some control over who calls them at their homes.

"The worst is the prerecorded tape," said Mark Lampe, a 46-year-old accountant who works out of his apartment in Lutherville. "I had one Sunday night. It told me I'd won who knows what, and I needed to call some number. It was $4.95 to complete the call. That's really beautiful."

Eight states have do-not-call lists or require that phone directories carry black dots beside the listings of residents who don't want to receive telephone solicitations. Seven other states, including Delaware and Pennsylvania, have similar legislation pending.

Roesser's bill is modeled on a Georgia law, which in its first year has 173,000 names on a state-run do-not-call list. There have been 3,000 violations reported. The state has hit a home-improvement company for $20,000 in penalties and a lawn service for $45,000.

"I used to get six or eight calls every week. Now, I've gotten one in six months," said William Bennett, vice president of Computer Business Services, the Americus, Ga., company that has a contract to maintain the list for that state.

Companies that use telemarketing contend that such state regulation is unnecessary. They note that a 1991 federal law requires every company doing telephone sales to maintain a do-not-call list. Consumers who ask to be left alone and keep getting bothered can sue in state courts and collect up to $500 per offending call.

"All they have to do is get on the no-call list," said Ross Baker, a lobbyist for AT&T, which hires outside contractors to do much of its telemarketing.

The federal law helps cut down on unwanted sales calls, but getting it enforced is time-consuming, says Barbara Joyce, a volunteer with Montgomery County's consumer affairs office. She figures she has collected more than $8,000 from 11 companies that telephoned her after she invoked the federal law and told them to put her on their lists.

Most people don't want to go to the trouble of suing to stop telemarketers, she noted.

Free service

Pat McHenry, a lobbyist for the Direct Marketing Association, says the New York-based industry group offers a free service to consumers who do not want to get telephone solicitations.

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