CONSUMER FORUM

Recent ruling: Suit can be brought against telemarketers in federal court

Posted Jan. 29, 2012, at 4:43 p.m.

The news items this month have been on consumers’ side when it comes to telemarketing.

Now, I’m not going to throw all telemarketers under the bus. Criticism will be reserved for those companies that tolerate or encourage harassment, high-pressure tactics or other abusive practices that give the entire industry a black eye.

Just a moment ago, literally in the process of writing this column, a robo-call came to our land line phone at home. We could win, the cheery woman’s recorded voice said, a trip to the Bahamas, just for responding to a 30-second poll on debt issues. Press one number to take the survey (and win), and another number to delete my name from their list.

Uh-huh. Let me get this straight. I take 30 seconds out of my busy day to answer one, maybe two questions… those answers will somehow yield enough information to justify giving me a trip to some island paradise… and I can even opt out and avoid more such calls by touching one button. Right.

The trick here is that the call is all robotic, all the time. The process is untouched by human hands, once the messages are recorded and the computers turned on. Pushing a button might get you a live person in real time, and this could lead to a little fun as we’ll see in a moment. But pressing that number in reality just tells the robo-caller that it’s reached a working number, and you’re on the list (or likely multiple lists) for further calls.

The national Do Not Call Registry was created to help consumers avoid many of these nuisance calls. We urge everyone who’s bothered by them to register — visit online www.donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222.

Once you’ve registered, folks in the telemarketing industry have 31 days to find your name on their call lists and remove it. So, you may get additional calls in the month after you’ve signed up; the good news is most of those calls should cease after that. (The exceptions are calls with political messages, charitable solicitations and telephone surveys. Also exempt are companies with which you have a prior business relationship, so be extra cautious about giving out your phone number in the first place.)

You need to register land lines and cellphones if you want to curtail telemarketing calls to both. If you use the toll-free number, you must call from the phone you want on the Do Not Call list. You may register up to three numbers, but they must be for phones that you own; you can’t register a relative’s phone.

This is a do-it-yourself process. If you receive a call offering to put you on the Do Not Call list for a fee, hang up. The Federal Trade Commission maintains the list, and there is no charge to use it.

By law, robo-callers can target only land line phones. If you receive a pre-recorded call on a cellphone in an effort to sell you something, it’s a violation of federal law. Efforts to allow such calls to cellphones were met with fierce opposition last fall and went nowhere.

A ruling a few days ago by the U.S. Supreme Court gave us some further legal recourse. The court ruled that people who catch telemarketers violating the law can sue in federal as well as state courts.

If you’re called by a live person and have some time, you can have some fun by wasting the caller’s time. String the caller along by pretending you’re interested, and squash the deal when you’re tired of the game. The more time you take up, the less time that caller has to bother someone else. If enough people waste their time, the industry might someday get our message.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit necontact.wordpress.com or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

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