September 28th, 2005

Do-Not-Call Lists Under Fire

By Christopher Conkey
Wall Street Journal

Two years after the National Do Not Call Registry took effect—and with more than 100 million numbers enrolled—dinner-time conversations are still being interrupted by telemarketing calls.

Regulators say the system is working, but a recent random survey (by telephone) by the Customer Care Alliance, a Virginia-based consortium of three customer-relations consultants, found that 51% of registered consumers say they’re still getting calls they think the list is supposed to block. Lois Greisman, the Federal Trade Commission official in charge of the registry, says the agency receives a “steady flow” of between 1,000 and 2,000 complaints about telemarketers every day.

Yet to date, there have been remarkably few fines issued by federal regulators. Despite one million reports of violations, the FTC has filed only 14 lawsuits and levied only four fines. The Federal Communications Commission, which jointly administers the program with the FTC, has issued warnings but only two fines, one to AT&T Corp., the company with the contract for administering the program.

Ms. Greisman defends the FTC’s enforcement record and says that only a small minority of telemarketers break the rules. Her counterpart at the FCC, Monica Desai, says, “Consumers who have registered are getting fewer calls and, in cases where there are violations, the FCC and FTC have been enforcing the rules.”

Now, a fresh fight is brewing over which calls are restricted and which ones aren’t. Twenty-five states maintain their own do-not-call lists, and many of them impose tougher restrictions on the kinds of calls that telemarketers can make.

As a result, a number of states view the national registry as a weaker tool that undercuts their more stringent protections, and some have been more eager to impose penalties for violations. Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, for example, has filed more than 110 lawsuits against companies that have run afoul of its registry, which, unlike the national list, doesn’t permit prerecorded messages.

But telemarketers are taking aim at states that have maintained or created tougher restrictions, petitioning the federal government to override them.

In July, 10 U.S. senators urged FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to reject efforts to weaken state laws, saying “consumers will continue to be served best by a dual regulation system that allows state responses to telemarketing practices.” The FCC is currently debating the petition and is expected to rule later this year.

While the Do Not Call registry was celebrated initially as a way to eliminate all bothersome calls, the national program has some significant limitations. For one thing, it doesn’t apply to nonprofit groups, pollsters or political organizations. And under the “existing business relationship” exemption, a company can call a customer for 18 months following a purchase. Businesses also can call those who have “inquired” about a product or service within three months.

The telemarketing industry is also finding ways to adapt to the restrictions. Consumers who notice fewer cold calls at home may be getting more solicitations at work or through the mail or from companies with which they do business.

Jack Smith, a student from Silver Creek, Minn., says he still gets prerecorded messages and automated “sniffers” trying to detect whether he is home. And technology consultant Phil Smedile of Boston still suffers through a regular barrage. “I still get mortgage-refinance calls almost daily,” Mr. Smedile says, ticking off the list of intrusions he gets from financial firms and other, more mysterious outfits. “Once a week, I get a call telling me I’ve won a cruise!”

Telemarketers were challenging state do-not-call lists in court well before the national registry began, and many hoped the adoption of the federal list in October 2003 would set a single standard that states would follow. Many states fell into line, either adopting the national registry as their own or merging their lists, but a handful clung to their more restrictive laws. Telemarketers then issued a rash of petitions and lawsuits seeking to nullify various aspects of state laws.

This all led up to a petition filed in April by 33 different organizations seeking to invalidate the “morass of existing and proposed state laws” and clarify, once and for all, that the FCC alone has jurisdiction over interstate telemarketing. If granted in full, the petition would prevent Indiana, New Jersey and others from restricting the activities of national telemarketers, leaving them with the reduced option of regulating intrastate calls.

In Indiana, where the state registry doesn’t have the broad “existing business relationship” loophole, Attorney General Steve Carter set up a Web site, http://www.savedonotcall.org, after telemarketers petitioned the FCC to pre-empt key aspects of state laws. “Your privacy is threatened, but our fight against these threats has just begun,” the site declares. “Together, we can stop the FCC from overriding Indiana’s strong Do Not Call law.”

The FTC is currently considering a request from the Direct Marketing Association, a trade group, to loosen restrictions on so-called abandoned calls, in which consumers are greeted with silence when they answer the phone. Abandoned calls are a byproduct of “predictive” dialing, which occurs when computerized systems place prerecorded calls to more numbers than they can handle at one time. Granting the petition would bring the FTC’s rules in line with more-lenient FCC regulations on abandoned calls.

Some consumers are taking it upon themselves to fight back. Tips for how to frustrate telemarketers circulate online, and sites like http://www.antitelemarketer.com play host to heated debates between angry consumers and telemarketers. One regular on the site started his own blog—anti206.blogspot.com—to publicize his feud with interstate telemarketers that call from area code 206 in Seattle.

Lynn Willner, a research scientist at George Washington University, says she signs up for do-not-call lists, shreds her bills, opts out of mail solicitations, has added antispyware software to her computer and checks her credit report yearly, but still feels like she’s falling behind. “At this point, I feel like I’m fighting a losing war,” she says. “Is there really any positive news out there about the protection of consumer privacy?”

Maybe this: For $1, the Direct Marketing Association will put the recently deceased on a special beyond-the-grave do-not-call list, so telemarketers don’t direct calls to a departed loved one.

DO-NOT-CALL TIPS
Some ways to shield yourself from telemarketers:
Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry at http://www.donotcall.gov1, or call 888-382-1222.

Tell callers to put you on their company’s do-not-call list, which they must maintain by law.

Sign up for your state’s do-not-call list. (Many have one, but some charge a fee.)

Get on the industry’s list at http://www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offtelephone2.

Comments

  1. Posted by emily on October 16th, 2005

    the same number has been popping up every couple of days, i think they are also claiming to be different companies....research. Tonight I went and re-registered on the do not called list and filed reports on the phone number. Luckly my caller id stores the number date and time of the call

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