- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Just as waitresses always seem to ask how the food is when customers have their mouths full, telemarketers always seem to know when a family sits down to dinner.

The dinnertime interruptions could stop, at least in the District, if a bill sponsored by D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp passes. The measure would create a list of people from the District who do not want to be called by telemarketers, and would penalize telemarketers that call people on those lists.

People on the "do not call" list would have to contact the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs every three months to remain on the list. Any telemarketer who makes a call more than 30 days after the customer's name has been added to the list would be fined up to $2,000.

"It seems that telemarketing companies and their persistent calls have multiplied to the point where you cannot sit down to a meal, read a book, watch a television program, or have a conversation at home without being interrupted by a sales pitch," Mrs. Cropp says.

Mrs. Cropp also says that some residents have complained to her that in the past, telemarketers have somehow gotten a hold of their unlisted phone numbers and used them.

She hopes the bill's passage will reduce the amount of telemarketing fraud, which costs consumers about $60 billion a year.

Matt Mattingly, the director of government affairs for the American Teleservices Association, says telemarketing, like it or not, will always be around, because it is part of a huge industry. Mr. Mattingly says about $500 billion in sales and 185 million sales transactions took place last year over the phone.

"While people have their views of telemarketing, it does contribute a sizable amount to the economy," he says. "I think when the facts about what it can versus what it seems to accomplish come out, there'll be a reality that this isn't a business-friendly bill."

He also says the broad approach in stopping telemarketing calls may do consumers more harm than good. "The problem with the bill is that consumers lose their freedom of choice. They may not need aluminum siding, but they may want to buy a magazine."

Mr. Mattingly says statewide bills aimed at reducing telemarketing are useless, as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, already requires companies to comply with consumers' requests that they are taken off their call lists.

But Susan Grant, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League says the state laws provide an easier way to deal with unwanted solicitations.

"The law puts more burden on consumers to tell each and every telemarketer that calls they want to be off their lists," she says.

Another point to consider is that from state to state, there is no real standard for which groups get excluded from these laws. That can also pose problems for consumers who live in a state that creates many exceptions and exclusions to its telemarketing laws, Miss Grant says.

"The problem is that more exceptions and exclusions to these rules equals more confusion for the consumer," she says.

Mrs. Cropp says she is open to the possibility of some businesses being excluded from the registry, such as schools that use automatic dial-up systems to alert parents their child wasn't in school.

Similar "do not call" laws have been enacted in 12 states, and more states are also considering them, according to the American Teleservices Association's Web site. Both Maryland and Virginia have had similar bills go through their respective Houses of Delegates. Virginia recently passed a bill back in March, which set specific hours a telemarketer could call homes, prohibited telemarketers from blocking their numbers from Caller ID, and prohibited telemarketers from calling homes that specifically asked in the past to be taken off their lists.

Maryland has tried in 1999 and 2000 to pass legislation that would create a statewide "do not call" list, but failed in both attempts. A bill that prohibited telemarketers from blocking their phone numbers from Caller ID was passed in late March.

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