Calling For A Change

Sen. Ida Ruben takes on one of the irritants of modern life: the telemarketer

February 21, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

In Florida last year for the holidays, Sen. Ida Ruben was in her car, on her cellular phone, checking her messages back home as every good Maryland legislator should. And everything was fine until she came to the one message on her answering machine left by a telemarketer.

Annoyed?

That's one way to describe her reaction.

"I had to listen to this long spiel, and I don't even remember the company. I was so angry I was mouthing off."

Livid? That's another.

"I'm waiting and waiting and waiting for all this to be finished, and I'm getting more and more aggravated."

By the time the message ended, the Montgomery County Democrat was so outraged she introduced a bill in the General Assembly soon after she returned home.

"Here I am paying for my cell phone - and for them to leave me a message! That was the crowning blow. There's a limit on how much people should have to take."

That's where being a state senator came in. Of all the bills introduced in this legislative session, some have come from lobbyists, some from passionate citizens and some from senators and delegates motivated by experiences in their private lives.

"I didn't have to fish around," Senator Ruben says. "If it happens to me, it happens to others."

She didn't have to bait her line, either, to hook the interest of plenty of people who feel the way she does about telephone solicitation. Scores of Internet sites are devoted to tales, tactics, even "tips for tormenting" the people who earn a living by making a telephone sales pitch ... then another ... and another.

One site suggests turning every call into a game: You earn five points for forcing the salesperson to repeat part of "the script," 50 points for changing the subject, 175 points for making the salesperson angry, 750 points for making him so angry he curses, 1,500 points for getting his boss on the line and tattling.

Another Web site, an online magazine, found that 40 percent of people surveyed react benignly to a telemarketer's call, 20 percent react with profanity, 20 percent attempt to sabotage the call, 10 percent say something weird, and the remaining 10 percent do as Senator Ruben does: hang up.

"It's bad enough," she says, "that we can't stop them from coming in here every two minutes at dinner time."

Which brings up another telemarketer story from her personal life. This one happened just before the General Assembly convened last month.

"I was at home, and we were eating dinner. I got one and I was pretty upset, and my husband got one from the same person five minutes later!"

Her bill won't prevent that from happening again, but if it passes, it will make it illegal for telemarketers to leave a sales pitch - live or pre-recorded - on a home answering machine, and it will provide consumers the means to take the solicitor to court.

State law already prohibits telemarketers from using automated dialing systems with pre-recorded messages to sell anything, but Senator Ruben's bill goes after those brazen enough to break the law and then bold enough to leave a message.

With Senate Bill 66, she steps into territory forged by generations of lawmakers before her, each aimed at the irritants of modern culture.

In 1707, Maryland legislators considered paying 300 pounds for every wolf killed. By 1900, the issue was what to do with pigs wandering into towns and how to prevent bicycles, new machines at the time, from mowing down pedestrians.

Today, privacy advocates are behind the wheel, and telemarketers are the ones scrambling for the curb.

Since Congress enacted the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, 49 states have considered "do not call" lists, and the Federal Trade Commission is currently proposing a national registry.

Recent efforts to create a "do not call" list in Maryland have failed, but a telemarketing bill passed last year, prohibiting them from intentionally blocking their numbers on phones with caller ID.

Senator Ruben understands that with 2,300 bills to be considered in 90 days, there may be bigger fish to fry, but as she said last week, when she testified in the Senate Finance Committee, "While the bill before you may seem minor, it is a small step in curbing these annoying calls."

She also realizes that her chances of success are "50-50." Verizon weighed in its opposition at the hearing. A consulting firm argued that federal law goes far enough. And one of the best known lobbyists in Annapolis submitted 43 pages of documents alluding to a threat made in 2000 when a Maryland "do not call" list died on the Senate floor, beginning with the sentence, "Bally Total Fitness Corporation leases 70,000 square feet of office space in Towson, Maryland, and employs in excess of 600 employees at this regional office alone." And "Any new proposed telemarketing legislation, if enacted, would force corporate management in Chicago to consider available alternatives, including but not limited to moving these telemarketing jobs out-of-state."

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