Steve Potts gets them almost every night, sometimes two or three, one right after the other. The phone rings, and he stops bathing the kids or reading them a bedtime story and picks up to hear a voice ask if he's interested in a new credit card or aluminum siding or--argh! He doesn't want to hear anymore.
Potts is a strong proponent of legislation that would put new restrictions on telemarketers and allow Maryland residents to put themselves on a "do-not-call" list. Any telemarketer making calls in Maryland would be required to consult the list and refrain from calling those on it. Charities would not be subject to the restriction.
"Those few hours in the evening are more important than ever before," Potts said, with both him and his wife working and looking for ways to spend more time with their two preschoolers at home each evening in Silver Spring. "I tell [the callers] we don't take telephone solicitations. Please take us off your list." But by the time he's done that, he's already been interrupted.
Potts is a member of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for a Better Maryland and D.C., which tries to find ways to help families spend more time together. He said the new restrictions are a quality-of-life issue in the technology-dominated 1990s.
Lots of others apparently agree. Since state Sen. Jean W. Roesser (R-Montgomery) proposed the legislation this year, she said she has been inundated with calls and letters of support. Similar proposals have been considered in Annapolis without success, but Roesser said she thinks enough people are frustrated about unwanted calls that there will be a ground swell of popular support by the time the General Assembly begins considering the bill in January.
It's all part of a national backlash against telemarketers that has prompted 20 states to propose or enact similar legislation, including Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas, which have laws taking effect next year.
"It's the one mode of communication over which we don't have control," Roesser said. "We can turn off the television. We can open our mail when we want. But those calls are an interruption."
A four-year-old federal law provides some relief. It is illegal, for instance, for telemarketers to call people who have informed them they don't want to be called. Telemarketers can make calls only from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and consumers can report telemarketers who violate those rules to the Federal Trade Commission or their state's attorney general.
President Clinton used his weekly radio address yesterday to launch a national campaign to fight telephone fraud. Clinton said consumers using the Internet will be able to file complaints and get information about preventing telemarketing scams at www.consumer.gov.
Clinton said every home in America will be mailed an oversized postcard next week listing fraud prevention tips to help consumers differentiate between legitimate telemarketers and scam artists.
In Maryland, business groups are watching the state's do-not-call legislation warily but haven't been too critical. Last week, Roesser's legislative work group voted 2 to 2 on the proposal, meaning it will be forwarded to the Senate Finance Committee without a recommendation. Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's) was supportive, but Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's) said they weren't convinced it was necessary.
The proposal is modeled on a new Georgia program that allows people to put themselves on a do-not-call list through the state Public Service Commission. In Georgia, people can call a toll-free number, write in or use the Internet to register. The cost is $5 for each phone number for two years.
Since the Georgia law took effect, 165,000 people have signed up, said Bill Bennett, vice president of Computer Business Services, the database contracting company the Georgia Public Service Commission employs to maintain the list. He said more than 1,300 telemarketing companies in 46 states and two other countries have registered to use the list.
"It's sweeping the country," Bennett said. "It's as hot as anything I've seen."
He said there had been about 3,000 violations so far. Enforcement in Georgia is through the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, and Bennett said one telemarketer was ordered to pay a $140,000 judgment for making unwanted calls.
Roesser said she has not decided on the final details of her proposal, including enforcement. But she said the state's Public Service Commission would likely be assigned to maintain the list in Maryland. She said she anticipated consumers would pay $5 or $6 every two years to keep the program self-supporting.
Sean Looney, a Maryland lobbyist for Bell Atlantic Inc., said the 165,000 sign-ups in Georgia represented about 5 percent to 10 percent of the eligible phone subscribers there.
Because Bell Atlantic serves telemarketers and sells its own services by phone, he said, the company would watch the proposal closely but hasn't taken a formal position on it.
Thomas Saquella, executive director of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association, said his members also are watching the proposal because many small retailers call customers about sales and other promotions, with repeat sales representing 80 percent of their business.
"A lot of small retailers who can't afford to advertise on radio or TV . . . keep a list [of past customers], and if they have a sale coming up will call those people," he said. "We don't want to see them get wrapped up in this."
Roesser said she would likely have an exemption allowing some businesses to call customers with whom they have done business before. And despite some concerns from business groups, she said, the legislation would save telemarketers the time and expense of calling people who are only going to hang up on them.
"It might make life easier for telemarketers," she said.