Sunday, June 10, 2001

Telemarketing law irks businesses, thrills residents

By Mike Smith
The Associated Press

        INDIANAPOLIS — The bankers didn't want it, nor the telephone companies, mortgage brokers or newspapers. Virtually every business that drums up customers by phone was against it. But a measure allowing residents to put their name on a “do not call” list for telemarketers swept through both houses of the Indiana Legislature unanimously, even though some lawmakers said privately they didn't want it, either.

        Rep. Dale Sturtz, the bill's sponsor, admits that Indiana's new telemarketing law — and similar, but often weaker laws in other states — won't stop every annoying call. But most Hoosiers were sick and tired of being pestered — and some wanted action.

        “This is by far the most popular bill I have ever carried,” said Mr. Sturtz.

        When Loleta Steed of Mr. Sturtz's hometown of LaGrange heard about the bill, she called to say she was all for it. “They come at all times of the day and night, and they're very interruptive,” she said. “It would help if just some of them were cut out.”

        The telemarketing industry says legitimate companies respect consumer privacy through in-house no-call lists or those kept by trade associations. It also notes some protections are afforded by federal law.

        But some states aren't satisfied. At least 21 have laws prohibiting certain telemarketers from soliciting people who put their names on official lists, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

        Florida, in 1988, became the first state with a no-call measure, primarily intended to protect senior citizens. More than 300,000 New Yorkers have signed onto a no-call registry kept by that state's consumer protection agency since October.

        In May, Indiana enacted a measure staunchly supported by Attorney General Steve Carter, who made the issue a key part of his campaign last year.

        Federal law requires a company to honor an individual request that a person not be called again, but it doesn't stop countless other telemarketers from initially calling that person. State laws offer broader protections.

        Mr. Carter said Indiana's law is among the strongest in the nation because it has only a handful of exceptions.

        Charities, newspapers, insurance agents and real estate agents can all call private homes, provided they use local employees rather than professional telemarketing firms.

        Other telemarketers will be barred from calling listed consumers beginning Jan. 1. Those that ignore the list would risk penalties ranging from a warning to fines of $25,000.

        “I don't think I've ever seen an issue where the public wanted relief so much, yet on the other side we had some very well-funded interests who opposed giving the public what they wanted,” Mr. Carter said.

        The Direct Marketing Association says state measures such as Indiana's are largely redundant because of the federal telemarketing law.

        The New York-based association keeps and distributes its own no-call list to its 5,000-plus members. There are more than 3.5 million names on the list, said Jerry Cerasale, the DMA's senior vice president for governmental affairs.

        “It's a win-win for the consumers and the marketers,” he said. “If you don't want me to call you, I don't want to spend the money to call you.”

        The DMA also says state no-call laws could become a costly administrative headache, because companies will have to keep track of the people on multiple lists, and because state laws differ.

        Despite some bad players, the DMA says telemarketers are valuable to the U.S. economy. According to the group, direct telephone market employment reached more than 5.7 million in 2000, with total sales of $6.1 billion.

        Not all states have had success with their laws.

        Kentucky has one with 22 exemptions. Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler has dubbed the measure “embarrassing,” saying 95 percent of calls were not affected.

        He proposed a bill to close many of the loopholes and create a “zero call” list for people over age 70, who could request that all calls be stopped. It failed to pass.

        The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in February created a “Do Not Call List” that prohibits telephone solicitation from marketers who represent competitive retail natural gas or electric companies to call anybody on the list.

        It does not limit calls from marketers representing any other commercial or retail company.

        “It is specific to electrical and natural gas. Consumers can call 1-800-820-5801 to register themselves on the list, and it takes about 30 days for the information to be processed,” said Shana Gerber, spokeswoman for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

        “With competition developing in state of Ohio, consumers may be receiving calls from new marketers asking them to make a switch. Consumers don't always want to receive those calls.”

        Ohio does not have a “do not call list” for other telemarketers, said Celeste Glasgow, spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. Legislation introduced in the Ohio House 1999 could have regulated telemarketing but it did not have support, she said. Other state laws often are inadequate, said Robert Bulmash, president and founder of Illinois-based Private Citizens Inc., a for-profit company that charges consumers $20 to be put on a no-call list that is distributed to more than 1,500 companies.

        Many laws exempt prior business relationships, and require consumers to file formal complaints with their state attorney general's office, he said.

        “When Joe Six Pack sits down to watch the baseball game, he doesn't know the attorney general from General Patton,” Mr. Bulmash said. “I would say to some extent they are successful, but to a greater extent they are used to placate the public, to make them think they have some protection.”

        Enquirer reporter John Eckberg contributed to this report.


               Some key provisions of Indiana's “do not call” law:

        • Requires the attorney general's office to produce quarterly list of Indiana consumers who do not want to be solicited by telephone.

        • Telephone solicitors will be charged a fee for getting the list and are not allowed to make calls to the numbers listed.

        • The attorney general's office will investigate consumer complaints regarding telemarketers.

        • Telephone solicitors who fail to comply will be committing a deceptive act, subject to action by the attorney general's office.

        • The office can levy civil penalties up to $10,000 for the first violation and $25,000 for subsequent violations.

        • Each telephone call in violation of the law is considered a separate violation.


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