Second Thought: Wednesday, November 12, 2003
We’ll Call You

“Do Not Call” really means don’t call the feds expecting any help.


I consider myself a good American. I obey laws, pay taxes, vote in elections, and when I heard about the “Do Not Call” list, I joined the 53 million others who are trying to escape the hell of telemarketing calls.

It was an interesting spectacle. Inspired, no doubt, by the collective anger of those 53 million voters at having their dinners interrupted every night, all three branches of government greased the skids to get this program going. New taxes take time to go into effect, health care reform is still “reforming,” and redistricting in Texas may make it through the courts sometime after the Texas Rangers make it to the World Series. But with the Do Not Call legislation, it seemed, results would be forthcoming almost immediately. Excited, I signed up.

I should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy. The ensuing whining, posturing, and pouting sounded more like a playground quarrel than government in action. But I naïvely thought all the legal squabbles would get worked out. What I didn’t realize at the time was the list of exemptions and loopholes contained in the new law and, more importantly, the lack of a clear plan on how to enforce it.

There are exemptions from the Do Not Call list for charities (my most persistent callers, ringing in on my guilt line because I never tell them to go away permanently), political groups (I’m turning off the phone for the last two weeks before any election), pollsters (ditto), and — maybe the most insidious — businesses that already have a relationship with those they call. For up to 18 months after you do business with a company, they can call you even if you are on the DNC unless you specifically request they stop. If you make a purchase, take delivery, or make a payment, they can call. Also if you make an inquiry or submit an application, they get three months to bother you unless you tell them specifically not to. So how is this different than the world pre-DNC? Violent stalkers get less leeway.

Then there are the abuses. I’ve heard news media reports of people calling DNC registrants to confirm their registration information. They are actually stealing identities based on the information given. The telemarketers are also finding loopholes to get around the rules. Many of them involve our old friends — coupons and sweepstakes. Once, the illegibly small print on those things let unscrupulous phone companies “slam” your long-distance service. Now they’re using them to get people to unwittingly give permission to be called. Hint: Never sign anything that you need a magnifying glass to read.

However, the most maddening thing about the Do Not Call list is that no one seems to be able to tell consumers how or where to file a complaint — or what will happen if you do. At various points in the process, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have been announced as the entity that would be handling the complaints. I have tried both paths, and neither seems to go anywhere.

The FCC took three weeks — an eternity in telemarketing time — to reply to an e-mailed complaint. Their response: “The FCC will not be resolving individual complaints ... but consumers should still report violations of the telemarketing rules.” The FTC was no better — I had to get pushy to get them even to accept my complaint. According to that agency’s web site, the “DNC will be enforced by the FTC, the FCC, and state law enforcement officials.” What a convenient way to diffuse responsibility and accountability.

Still the web site seemed to offer hope of an answer. The “frequently asked questions” list included this one: “What happens to my complaint?” The answer, unfortunately, is nearly identical to the FCC’s e-mailed response. “While the FTC does not resolve individual consumer problems,” the site said, “your complaint will help us investigate the company, and could lead to law enforcement action.” And the point of this was ...?

I am not alone in my quest. According to an Associated Press story from Oct. 17, there have been more than 18,000 complaints made to the FTC and the FCC combined — more than 1,000 a day!

Maybe those complainers will once again create the critical mass necessary to inspire the government to cut the bureau-babble and try again here to provide real help.

In the meantime, I suggest making another change. Instead of the Do Not Call list, perhaps it should be labeled Do Not Bother.

Lara Hanson is a freelance writer in Arlington.

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