- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday proposed its first major penalty against a company that violated telemarketing rules.

The agency voted 5-0 to levy a $780,000 fine against AT&T; Corp., the nation’s largest long-distance company.

“This is evidence the commission is serious about strong enforcement,” said David Solomon, chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau.

Commissioners voted to issue the fine after concluding that the telephone company repeatedly violated telemarketing rules.

Federal regulators are charging AT&T; under rules in place before the national do-not-call registry took effect on Oct. 1. Consumers have added more than 54 million telephone numbers to that list.

AT&T; broke the rules by calling 29 consumers on 78 occasions after they asked not to be called, Mr. Solomon said. The proposed fine includes $10,000 for each violation.

AT&T; officials said yesterday they think the number of violations is lower than the FCC has indicated.

“We disagree with the FCC. We’re confident we can persuade them that if there are valid complaints, it’s a lot less [than 78],” AT&T; spokesman Bob Nersesian said.

Some complaints could be over telemarketing calls from subsidiaries such as AT&T; Wireless, Mr. Nersesian said. That wouldn’t be the fault of AT&T; telemarketers because the businesses are separate.

Mr. Solomon said regulators received 360 complaints from consumers about AT&T; from December through August. The FCC, which began its investigation in April, sent five “letters of inquiry” to AT&T; concerning 142 complaints from people who say they asked to be placed on the phone company’s do-not-call list.

The FCC concluded that it had enough proof to charge AT&T; with 78 violations.

One woman asked an AT&T; telemarketer in 1999 to place her number on its do-not-call list, then she received three telemarketing calls from November 2002 through May. Requests to be placed on a do-not-call list have to be honored for 10 years, according to the FCC.

Congress passed the law in question — the Telephone Consumer Protection Act — in 1992.

In addition, AT&T;’s policy requires telemarketers to place people on the company’s do-not-call list no more than 30 days after they ask to be on the list, but the FCC says the company called some consumers more than 30 days after they made such requests.

“We find that AT&T;’s own 30-day requirement appears to represent the outer limit of reasonableness, and it appears that AT&T; did not meet even this standard,” FCC regulators wrote in a notice of liability that was given to the company yesterday.

AT&T; has 40 million local-calling and long-distance subscribers.

Consumer groups praised the FCC yesterday.

“We are extremely pleased to see that the FCC has taken vigorous action to protect consumers against unwanted telemarketing calls. This is a clear signal to the industry that they must take consumers seriously when consumers say they want to be left alone,” said Gene Kimmelman, senior policy director for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

The FCC decided to fine AT&T; $10,000 for each violation. It could have fined them up to $120,000 for each offense. The telephone company has 30 days to respond to the agency, and the FCC could decide to lower the fine.

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