States spare residents from telemarketers

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Every time Rosie Heard hung up the phone last week, it seemed, the receiver started ringing again. Call after call after call. All from strangers. All wanting to talk her ear off about some new offer.

But Ms. Heard was no target for telemarketers. Quite the opposite, in fact.

She's an administrative assistant for the state of Missouri, and she was responding to consumers excited about the state's new "no call" law, which promises to free home phones from telemarketers.

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"The phone has been ringing off the hook, and we're getting a ton of e-mails," she says. "People in bordering states are calling wanting to know if they can get it, too. I'm getting a real geography lesson."

For people tired of racing for a ringing phone only to pick up and hear a telemarketer mangle their names, help has arrived. Last week, Missouri joined a growing list of states that let consumers put their names on a do-not-call list for telemarketers.

In a signal of how unpopular telemarketing has become among Americans, momentum for similar bills has built quickly nationwide. Seven states have passed no-call laws this year, bringing the total number to 13. Twenty-seven others are considering similar legislation.

Catching on

Here in Missouri, Heard and others logged 110,000 sign-ups during the first week of registration.

One of them was Debra Baldwin. The Catawissa, Mo., homemaker says she gets as many as five calls a day.

"Daytime, nighttime, dinnertime - I even got one last Sunday," she says. "It's so annoying. I've tried to tell them, 'Please take me off your list,' and I end up spending another half hour on the phone verifying personal information for some form they have."

It was stories like Ms. Baldwin's that led to change in the Show Me State. With technology offering new ways for solicitors to interrupt family time and privacy, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon felt the time was right to propose the no-call law.

"Ever since the founding of this country you've been able to put a no-trespassing sign on your property," he says. "With the invention of telemarketing, that no-trespassing zone no longer includes your dinner table."

The Missouri version of the law is simple. At no cost to them, consumers can place their names on a no-call list by registering over the phone or on the Internet. The statute takes effect July 1, 2001. After that, any telemarketer calling a name on the list - which Mr. Nixon says could grow to as many as 250,000 people - will be subject to a $5,000 fine.

The primary intent of the first no-call law, passed in Florida, was to protect the elderly. A common scam in the Sunshine State and elsewhere was to call a senior and say that he or she had won a multimillion-dollar prize that needed to be secured with a processing fee of several hundred dollars. Typically, a courier was dispatched to the targeted senior's house to pick up the check.

Adding insult to injury, there are reported cases of unscrupulous telemarketers offering, for a fee, to recover money previously lost to con artists. They also send a courier to pick up the money.

While some consumers no longer have any hangups about hanging up on telemarketers, others cringe at the whole interaction and think both the intrusion and their forced termination of the call merely add to the general coarsening of society. Indeed, the slogan of an advocacy group trying to shield seniors from predatory telemarketers is: It's shrewd to be rude.

A $540 billion industry

Telemarketers stress that, except for a few unethical operators, their business is lawful and represents a vital chunk of the economy.

In 1999, 5.4 million Americans were employed in telephone marketing, and sales driven by the practice topped $540 billion, according to the Direct Marketing Association.

Moreover, the industry says, attempts to restrict telemarketing encroaches on fundamental constitutional rights such as freedom of speech.

"There are federal laws that already address these issues," says Kevin Brosnahan, a spokesman for the American Teleservices Association. "They allow consumers to request to be put on do-not-call lists that are more company-specific, rather than state laws that eliminate all calls.

"Consumers should be allowed to pick and choose what types of calls they get," he adds.

Telemarketers and their forces have succeeded in changing several state bills. Some exceptions are as basic as allowing a local restaurateur to call back and ask if that was pork or Italian sausage you wanted on your pizza. Others, such as allowing telephone company solicitations to continue, undermine the whole purpose of the law, critics say.

Who gets exemptions?

Even telemarketers deride some of the exemptions - but for different reasons. The line between who gets an exemption and who doesn't is often arbitrary and unfair, they say, throwing no-call laws' legitimacy into doubt.

For example, fundraising calls are commonly granted exemptions. "I think most people out there would rather get a sales call than a call from a politician," says Mr. Brosnahan dryly.

Another challenge for telemarketing companies is keeping track of those they can call and those they can't. Trying to juggle no-call lists from a dozen states, along with updates, creates a logistical nightmare for call centers, many of them small-budget operations.

That issue, however, may soon be resolved.

A new product offered by a company called Callcompliance.com compiles all telephone numbers on mandated state lists nationwide, and through agreements with local and long-distance carriers, it allows telemarketing companies to automatically block their own operators from dialing banned numbers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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