Taming the Telephone

Telemarketing is under fire. On one front, the Justice Department has joined with the business community to expose fraud over the wires. The US Postal Service is mailing an over-sized postcard to every address in the country with tips for detecting such scams - particularly the bogus investment pitches that typically dupe older people.

Such fraud is estimated to pick Americans' pockets of some $40 billion each year.

That's the darkest side of telemarketing. The industry also includes countless legitimate businesses, whose calls are familiar to nearly every American. In fact, too familiar for many.

That's the other front. The volume of such calls has apparently reached a political threshold of sorts. People are calling their legislators, who are taking action. A recent Monitor article noted that Rep. Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona is championing a Don't Disturb My Dinner Act to cut back on phone selling.

He's got lots of company in statehouses. Eight states have enacted some form of restriction on telemarketing. Usually, the idea is to protect people's privacy - especially at the dinner hour. Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida have laws that allow people to add their phone numbers to a list that telemarketers can't contact. A Florida official described it as "a telephonic 'do not disturb' sign."

Telemarketing companies that violate the lists face stiff fines. Most of the states exempt churches and charities, which may use the phone to ask for support, and polling firms.

Telemarketers object that their rights to free speech are being infringed by such laws. That may eventually be a matter for the courts. Certainly the developments mentioned above - fraud awareness and the privacy backlash - are asserting the rights of people on the other end of the line. Those rights include, obviously, the right to decide to unplug the phone at dinner time.

In the end, today's controversies over phone-selling should lessen fraud, temper excessive phone pitches, give homeowners a little more sense of control, and, ultimately, serve the interests of both legitimate telemarketers and the general public.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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