Campaign Calls to Cellphones Invade Privacy, Voters Say

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

Brandon Loughrin thinks his cellphone number must have been captured when he registered to vote in his home state of California. Like an increasing number of U.S. residents, he has no landline. His cellphone is always with him, so he's careful about who gets his information.

"I generally don't give out my number," said Loughrin, 25. "But voter registration forms seemed like a safe place" to reveal it.

Last-minute campaign calls are, however, increasingly targeting cellphones, frustrating voters who say their privacy is being violated through political telemarketing to their personal mobile devices.

"Every time I get a call, it aggravates me a little more," said Loughrin, who has received a number of calls urging him to vote in the Riverside County local elections. "I get charged with every call to my cellphone, so I don't see how any unsolicited call is permissible."

The rise of the robocall and the growing number of people who use a cellphone as their primary point of contact have converged to invade voters' personal space. Telemarketing to cellphones for general consumer purposes, such as car warranty sales pitches, was outlawed in 2003 so as to not penalize consumers, whose cellphone plans typically require that they pay for minutes used.

But an exemption in the law allowed political candidates to call people, whether on their cellphones or their landlines.

Campaigns can easily obtain a list of voters' telephone numbers for a nominal fee through state voter registry databases, said Shaun Dakin, chief executive and founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, a nonprofit advocacy program. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of American adults use only a cellphone and have no landline at home.

"Every day, I get people sending me e-mails saying, 'I'm sick and tired of candidates sending robocalls to my cellphone,' " he said.

Loughrin was one of them. Last month he signed up for the program, which has 60,000 members, 10,000 of whom filled out surveys about their experiences with robocalls. Of those, 700, or 7 percent, say they have been called on their cellphones, Dakin said.

"The big myth out there amongst the populace is that robocalls to cellphones are illegal," Dakin said. "If one of these campaigns gets your number, they can call it. They're stupid to do it, but it's not illegal."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, both California Democrats, have introduced the Robocall Privacy Act, which would limit the number of times a candidate can call any phone number to no more than twice a day.

In fact, cellphone numbers are becoming easier to obtain with more and more commercial data brokers, including online firms, collecting and marketing access to them. And usually, it is consumers themselves who are handing over the data -- when they order pizza, apply for store credit, or fill out warranty or sweepstakes cards.

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