National list a hang-up for telemarketers

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March 20, 2003|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

A FEW MONTHS ago, a column on using technology to fool telemarketers brought a warm response from readers fed up with dinnertime interruptions by pitches from insurance salesmen, banks, credit card hawkers and quick-buck operators.

This month's good news: Technical tricks may be less necessary in the future because the government is finally doing something about these annoying creeps.

On March 10, President Bush signed legislation authorizing the Federal Trade Commission to set up a national "do-not-call" list. Once you put your number on the list, telemarketers are supposed to leave you alone or face a fine of up to $11,000 for each violation. Doesn't that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside? And here's the best part - telemarketers will eventually have to pay for the system themselves.

As usual with things that sound too good to be true, the devil is in the details. But the bill is a good start. Here's how it works:

Starting this spring, the FTC will begin accepting phone numbers from consumers who want to be left alone, either through an 800 number or over the Internet. Telemarketers must check this list every three months and eliminate the new numbers from their calling lists. Once you're in the national do-not-call registry, the prohibition against calling you is good for five years, after which you can renew. If a telemarketer does call, you can lodge a complaint by phone or online.

At least 24 states already have their own do-not-call registries (unfortunately, Maryland isn't one of them). Most states are expected to add their lists to the national registry, although that could take up to a year. In states such as Indiana and Massachusetts, whose rules are more stringent than the FTC's, the tougher state regulations will still apply.

Now for the ifs, ands or buts. Most of the regulations are aimed at the big telemarketing firms who are hired by other companies to make their sales pitches. They produce a big percentage of the 104 million calls that bombard consumers every day, but companies with their own telemarketing staffs generally have more leeway.

No matter who's calling, the new rules do not protect you from solicitations from anyone you've done business with in the past 18 months. The same goes for any business you've contacted or filled out an application with during the past three months. So be careful about providing your phone number or any personal information on Web sites unless you want the owner to interrupt your dinner with a phone call.

On the other hand, if any of these exempt folks do call, and you tell them to put you on their own do-not-call lists, they have to comply.

The new law does not apply to calls from charities, surveys and politicians. The latter exemption has drawn criticism from the telemarketing industry, which has filed suit against the FTC to block the do-not-call rules on that grounds that it infringes on merchants' right to free speech.

I don't think they'll get very far. While politicians often are annoying, political speech enjoys almost blanket protection under the Constitution. Advertising doesn't. There's also a natural limit to the amount of annoyance any politician is willing to risk by phoning your home - you can always retaliate by voting for the other guy.

Telemarketers don't care if you hate them. If they make one sale for every 50 people they annoy, they're happy. The only thing that will keep a telemarketing firm from calling you is an epidemic of terminal laryngitis in the phone room or the threat of a fine that's big enough to make breaking the law unprofitable.

Here's another big loophole - the FTC doesn't have the power to regulate phone solicitation by banks, airlines and long distance phone companies -some of the worst offenders. Unfortunately, they fall under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission, which hasn't said whether it will follow the trade commission's lead. The FCC hasn't been particularly consumer-friendly under the Bush administration. But the president and many Republican lawmakers have signed onto the do-not-call idea (deep down, even they hate telemarketers), so it wouldn't be surprising to see some FCC action.

The new rules also address some of the most annoying features of the so-called "predictive dialing" systems that professional firms use. To keep their employees talking as much as possible, their computers dial more consumer phone numbers than there are salespeople available at any one time. This results in "dead calls" - you pick up the phone and there's nobody on the line.

Telemarketers now will be required to connect you to a salesperson within two seconds after you pick up the phone. If there's no representative available, they'll have to play recorded message telling you who's calling and the phone number they're calling from - but no recorded sales pitch. Finally, within the next 12 months they'll be required to transmit their telephone number to your caller ID service, so you'll know who they are.

Just don't expect miracles. It's likely to be sometime in the fall before the national do-not-call list is in operation. You can keep up with the latest developments at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/donotcall.

Meanwhile, you can still try some technical tricks to fend off the annoyers. One way is to set up your answering machine to play three tones that make many telemarketing calls go away. You'll find a good explanation at www.facstalk.com/beep .html.

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