Where "Do Not Call" Does Not Count


By Jane Black Cyan Callahan, an employee at San Francisco interactive marketing firm Mindshare Design, signed up for the national Do Not Call List the very first week it was announced in late June. Like many Americans, Callahan was receiving an average of three or four calls a day from telemarketers and was fed up. More than 45 million irate citizens have signed up since then. Though the list doesn't go into effect until Oct. 1, Callahan says she has already had more nights of total peace and quiet. "In the last two months, I've come home and thought: 'Wow, my phone's not ringing. I like this.'"

Callahan isn't alone. Across the country, Americans say the telemarketing tidal wave is receding. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is managing the list, has received hundreds of thank-you letters from grateful consumers.

Experts say, however, these people are experiencing nothing more than a placebo effect -- consumers might think they're getting fewer calls because they signed up for the Do Not Call List, but other factors may be at work. According to Tom Cardella, CEO of telemarketer Precision Response, any slowdown is seasonal. Telemarketers often make fewer calls in August, when families go on vacation, and during September, when they're busy with back-to-school activities.

LIMITED APPLICATIONS. In fact, telemarketers, led by the American Teleservices Assn., are still contesting the new law, saying it violates their right to free speech. A decision from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is due in the next few days. Meanwhile, telemarketers say calls continue unabated.

Indeed, despite the widespread publicity, consumers' high hopes for the Do Not Call List have obscured just what it can deliver. Half of those who have registered or plan to think unsolicited calls will go down "a lot," while 37% think the calls will go down "a little," and 11% that they'll "not go down at all," according to a Harris poll released Sept. 4.

Just 9% of those surveyed realized that the registry applies only to telemarketing calls. Fund-raising calls from nonprofits and charitable organizations, survey calls by the media, and surveys, polls, and solicitations from political candidates and parties aren't covered under the list.

NO OBLIGATION. Moreover, the cessation of calls offering a free Disney vacation or a timeshare in the Poconos could embolden survey-takers and nonprofits to pump up their volume. "Historically, survey firms have a refusal rate of 35% to 45%. If the past is anything to judge by, they'll pick up the pace to fill the hole that fewer commercial solicitations will create," says Bob Bulmash, president of Private Citizen, a consumer group that opposes unchecked direct marketing. Bulmash estimates that the Do Not Call List will slash unsolicited calls by just 25% -- a long way from the dinnertime quiet that Americans crave.

The primary reason: a loophole for companies that you have a "preexisting business relationship" with. According to the new regulations, any company you do business with may call you for up to 18 months after your last purchase or delivery from it, or your last payment. So the bank, the phone company, and the utility suppliers that you do business with on a regular basis are under no obligation to leave you alone.

And if you make an inquiry to a company about, say, how late the store is open or the best place to park when you go there, you'll have an implied relationship with that company, which can then call you for the next three months. "I didn't realize there were specific groups that were still able to call you," says Jason Stone, a 33-year-old New York finance manager. "I assumed that nobody could call you anymore."

THINGS TO DO. It's still possible to keep these commercial calls at bay, but it requires more effort than merely signing up for the Do Not Call List. If you receive a call from a company you do business with, you can ask it to add you to its own "don't call" roster. And if you call for directions or store hours, make sure you explicitly state that you don't want to receive unsolicited marketing calls. Under these circumstances, the company must honor your request not to call. If it calls again, it's subject to a fine of up to $11,000.

The Do Not Call List may also unleash two unintended consequences. First, you may start receiving more telemarketing solicitations at work because the registry doesn't cover business-to-business calls. With so many databases of names, addresses, and phone numbers for sale, it's easy for telemarketers to track you down at a number that may not be blocked.

Second, the regulations carve out a little-known loophole for TV and radio stations that broadcast over the airwaves. Starting Oct. 1, they'll be permitted to call and urge you to tune into upcoming programs.

$500 FEE. Disillusioned consumers have at least one other option. Private Citizen, which has been fighting unsolicited telemarketing since 1988, offers a $20-a-year service that will stop telemarketing calls from businesses as well as fund-raising and survey calls, and even those annoying "get out the vote" calls from the local political machine.

Sign up, and Private Citizen (www.private-citizen.com) will send out a letter on your behalf to 1,900 local and national junk-callers and list sellers that represent commercial entities, political organizations, and survey takers, among others. Their work goes far beyond what's covered under the Do Not Call List. The letter informs them of your unwillingness to be called or have your name sold. It also warns them of a $500 fee -- payable directly to you, not the government -- if they take your time by soliciting you. Private Citizen members have collected more than $2 million since 1996.

It's a start. And so is the Do Not Call List. It won't prevent all unwanted intrusions, but understanding how to play the game will move you that much closer to domestic tranquility. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column


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