COMMENTARY: National Do Not Call Registry: A Model for Other Federal Agencies

by Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry

Seattle, WA (Special to HNN) Remember how irritating it was when you had just taken your first bite of dinner and then the telephone rang? Or it was in the last few minutes of a tied football or basketball game you were watching and your favorite team was poised to win? But just in case it might be something important, you answered the phone, and a telemarketer began talking at you with an unsolicited sales pitch.

 

With the exception of politicians during election time and charitable organizations, most of those interruptions are now history thanks to the National Do Not Call Registry. Not only does this federal registry provide an important and valuable customer service, but the cost of its operation is nearly self sufficient.

 

If it was allowed to keep the revenue from the civil penalties and fines it collects, the Registry might even show a profit. So might other federal entities,  including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead the money collected goes into a general fund which is a deep, dark hole somewhere in Washington that becomes a slush fund for Congress to spend.

 

Consumers should thank Representatives John Dingell (D-Michigan) and Wilbert J. “Billy” Tauzin II (R-Louisiana) for sponsoring H.R. 395 in 2003 that gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to establish the Registry. Since then more than 200 million residential land lines and cell phone numbers have been registered.

 

The law has been amended so a phone number needs to be registered only once. When there was a rumor in 2005 that cell phone companies were going to sell directories to telemarketers, the FTC stepped in to have consumers register cell phones. Fax numbers do not need to be listed since it is illegal to send an unsolicited fax.

 

According to Mitchell J. Katz, spokesperson for the FTC, telemarketers pay to access the Registry. “It is a violation to do interstate telemarketing without buying the list and then scrubbing it against a call list before making calls,” he says. “The first three area codes are free and there is a maximum cost they have to pay each year to get numbers for all area codes.”

 

Katz says that the Registry still receives some 1.3 million complaints every year. “Telemarketers who violate rules face fines of up to $16,000 for each illegal call and it can add up quickly,” he adds. The largest civil penalty assessed to date was against DirecTV which paid $5.3 million for calling consumers and then calling them back again after they asked not to be called.

 

There are some exceptions to unwanted and unsolicited calls. The Registry applies only to residential phones and not business lines. Of course Congress naturally exempted politicians. Even automated, robocalls for political purposes are not illegal. This prompted Citizens for Civil Discourse, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, to lobby for a change and create a website, Stop Political Calls. Unfortunately, the CCD’s registry has no legal standing. What is interesting is that only three Democrats – Nancy Boyde (Kan.), Mike Carter (Mo.) and Lori Alexander (Va.) – and three Republicans – Virginia Fox (N.C.), Matt Salisbury (Idaho) and Michael Crimmins (Calif.) – signed a pledge to support the effort. Only Boyde and Fox are member of Congress.

 

A person can still receive unwanted calls from non-for-profit organizations but not from a paid telemarketer. There are exemptions for people who are conducting surveys; from companies the consumer is doing business with or has done business with in the previous 18 months; and creditors and bill collectors, unless the individual has filed for bankruptcy protection.

 

“When a complaint is received staffers at our Consumer Response Center enter it into the Consumer Sentinel, the nation’s largest consumer complaint database. This unique cyber tool provides more than 2,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies with access to complaints made by consumers,” Katz says. “This allows complaint information to be sorted so we can see if there are multiple complaints against one firm or one phone number. This is then used by our investigators when they look into possible violations.”

 

Consumers can register their land lines and cell phones and file complaints by going to www.donotcall.gov. Katz adds that the FTC always seeks public comments on how to improve the system regarding caller identity, fraud and telemarketers trying to get around the rules. While there is no registry for spam or junk or fraudulent email, the commission is studying this issue and comments can be sent to uce@ftc.gov.

 

Officials in a few states are making a concerted effort to target junk emailers and spammers. Rob McKenna, Washington State’s attorney general, is one of the most progressive. His office has worked closely with Microsoft to send some abusers to jail and fine others out of business. McKenna’s office also is a member of the Consumer Sentinel Network.

 

With the amount of junk mail I received every day, I believe that a National Do-Not-Email Registry would be immediately self sufficient and be a major income producer for the government.

 

Rene A. Henry, a native of Charleston, WV and a resident of Seattle,  is the author of seven books and writes on a variety of subjects including customer service, crisis management and communications, travel and tourism, sports and business. Many of his widely published articles are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com.

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