- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

As of next week, those irritating automated phone calls asking people to buy hot new consumer products or take a dream vacation will be a thing of the past.

The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday banned unsolicited, prerecorded, commercial telemarketing calls - better known as robocalls - just because they are annoying.

“American consumers have made it crystal clear that few things annoy them more than the billions of commercial telemarketing robocalls they receive every year,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “Starting September 1, this bombardment of prerecorded pitches, senseless solicitations and malicious marketing will be illegal.”

Telemarketing firms that want to continue to use robocalls must first receive written permission from the person receiving the phone call. Under the previous rule, consumers had to “opt out” of robocalls by joining do-not-call lists.

In the likely event they don’t receive permission, telemarketers face fines up to $16,000 per call.

The ban does contain some major exceptions. For example, prerecorded messages that aren’t trying to sell something still will be permitted.

The most common such calls are purely informational calls such as schools notifying parents of delays or closures, airlines alerting passengers to a flight cancellation, or furniture stores reminding consumers of a delivery.

The ban also allows calls from charities and from politicians, meaning that voters can expect another deluge of automated get-out-the-vote messages from Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney and others come November 2010.

The news isn’t all bad for telemarketing firms. Calls from live operators instead of automated systems are not covered by the new rule, though companies will still have to avoid placing calls to numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry.

Tim Searcy, chief executive officer of the American Teleservices Association, a trade association whose members include telemarketers, said that most legitimate firms have already phased out their robocalls, noting that the FTC gave notice of the ban last year.

“This has been coming for some time,” Mr. Searcy said. “We’ve all been aware of it and candidly, it’s a good thing for the industry because these canned messages are annoying for consumers.”

What the ban won’t do, Mr. Searcy said, is stop illegitimate telemarketers, those selling phony vacation time-shares or telling consumers they’ve won something, which make up the vast majority of current robocall traffic.

“Adding additional laws that a lawbreaker can break won’t stop lawbreakers from breaking laws,” he said.

The new requirement is part of the commission’s Telemarketing Sales Rule amendments that were announced a year ago.

The amendment takes effect Tuesday. Consumers who receive prerecorded telemarketing calls without agreeing to them after that time can file a complaint with the commission at www.ftc.gov or by calling 877/FTC-HELP.

“If consumers think they’re being harassed by robocallers, they need to let us know, and we will go after them,” Mr. Leibowitz said.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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