Remember when you'd sit down for dinner and inevitably the telephone rang? And you answered knowing another maddening, won't-take-no-for-an-answer telemarketer would be on the other end insisting on selling you a miracle product or vacation plan you didn't want?
Seems almost quaint now, like a Norman Rockwell scene or something out of an "Ozzie & Harriet" episode. But only two years ago, consumers considered "tele-nuisance" calls to be a scourge of everyday life, ranking them near the top of all gripe lists. Telemarketing scored No. 4 on Time magazine's survey of the Worst Ideas of the 20th Century. In a Gallup Poll on honesty and ethics, it ranked last out of 21 professions.
Then came the almighty National Do Not Call Registry. Launched by the feds in the summer of 2003, it actually worked -- a phenomenal government success. Almost overnight, the registry sent the raging tele-monster whimpering off with its tail between its legs by making it a federal offense to call phone numbers on the list.
And consumers clamored to sign on, registering more than 7 million phone numbers the first day, some 55 million in the first six months. This week, registrations surpassed the 100 million mark -- a ringing endorsement from consumers. But not quite the last call for telemarketers.
"For quite a while, those annoying phone calls did not come in," says Charlotte Weill, a Silver Spring early registrant. "However, in the past two to three weeks, I have received four calls from businesses that I have never dealt with before."
That's not supposed to happen. Weill wonders if, maybe, she needs to renew her listing? Or, she asks, if those were illegal telemarketing calls, "what's the remedy?"
First, if Weill hasn't moved or changed her phone number, she doesn't need to renew yet. To keep telemarketers at bay, renewal is required every five years, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which operates the program with the Federal Communications Commission.
And while Weill says she's certain these were businesses calling, many consumers get confused about calls that are exempt from the restrictions. That's why, like it or not, you still hear from charities, political groups and pollsters. By law, they can call -- even during dinnertime.
So can companies with which you have "an established business relationship" -- such as your credit card company offering upgrades, card protection plans, etc., or Sports Illustrated hounding you to re-up your subscription in time for the swimsuit issue. But, if you tell them to stop calling ("Put me on your company do-not-call list"), they're supposed to stop.
Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection's Division of Planning and Information, advises that before you get into a tizzy over suspect telemarketing calls, verify by phone or online that your number is still registered. Hey, stuff happens in government -- and in computer systems, no?
Telemarketers' compliance with the rules has been good, however. Since its origin, the registry has received nearly 1 million complaints, a fraction of the number of registrations. And, so far, the FTC has brought just nine violation cases and four fraud cases related to the registry, including its first "pure" do-not-call case last year against time-share telemarketers who made more than 300,000 sales calls to registered numbers, a breach that cost them $500,000 in civil penalties. The FCC has issued an additional 20 citations against companies for violating regulations, in some cases settling the $11,000 per illegal call penalty for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Greisman says if your number is registered and you receive a call that wasn't exempt, chances are that a legitimate company called illegally or a scammer is on the other end of the line. "There are some actors out there who just don't follow the rules," she says. "And it doesn't surprise me at all that guys engaged in serious fraud do not follow the rules."
The registry has made consumers "more sensitive and more skeptical" about any telemarketing calls they receive, Greisman says. If you receive a telemarketing call you think you shouldn't get, you are encouraged to file a complaint using the same Web site or phone number where you registered, she says. "We tried to make registering, verifying and complaining as simple as possible."
They Call Dead People?
Getting telemarketing calls and advertising mail for a deceased loved one has always posed sensitivity problems. And it can be difficult to stop -- especially since a popular anti-telemarketing strategy during telemarketing's heyday was to tell the caller the person he asked for is dead.
Last month, the Direct Marketing Association, the nation's largest direct-marketing trade group, established a Deceased Do-Not-Contact List (DDNC) to ease removal of names from marketing lists.
DMA Director of Public Affairs Stephanie Hendricks says the DDNC's greatest impact is likely to be in stopping catalogues and advertising mail addressed to the deceased. "Getting something with a deceased family member's name on it bothers some people," she says, adding that the list also might prevent some telemarketing calls to deceased consumers.
For a $1 credit card charge, family members, friends or caregivers can register the deceased's name, address, telephone number and e-mail address online at https://preference.the-dma.org/cgi/ddnc.php. DMA members are required to honor the list. The DMA says the charge provides a record of who did the registering and helps to prevent misuse of the system.
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to email@example.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.