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Do Not Call Registry has hang-ups, poll says

Christopher Conkey Wall Street Journal

Two years after the National Do Not Call Registry took effect — and with more than 100 million numbers enrolled — dinner-time conversations are still being interrupted by telemarketing calls.

Regulators say the system is working, but a recent random survey (by telephone) by the Customer Care Alliance, a Virginia-based consortium of three customer-relations consultants, found that 51 percent of registered consumers say they’re still getting calls they think the list is supposed to block. Lois Greisman, the Federal Trade Commission official in charge of the registry, says the agency receives a “steady flow” of between 1,000 and 2,000 complaints about telemarketers every day.

Yet to date, there have been remarkably few fines issued by federal regulators. Despite one million reports of violations, the FTC has filed only 14 lawsuits and levied only four fines. The Federal Communications Commission, which jointly administers the program with the FTC, has issued warnings but only two fines, one to AT&T Corp., the company with the contract for administering the program.

Greisman defends the FTC’s enforcement record and says that only a small minority of telemarketers break the rules. Her counterpart at the FCC, Monica Desai, says, “Consumers who have registered are getting fewer calls and, in cases where there are violations, the FCC and FTC have been enforcing the rules.”

Now, a fresh fight is brewing over which calls are restricted and which ones aren’t. Twenty-five states maintain their own do-not-call lists, and many of them impose tougher restrictions on the kinds of calls that telemarketers can make.

As a result, a number of states view the national registry as a weaker tool that undercuts their more stringent protections, and some have been more eager to impose penalties for violations.

But telemarketers are taking aim at states that have maintained or created tougher restrictions, petitioning the federal government to override them.

In July, 10 U.S. senators urged FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to reject efforts to weaken state laws, saying “consumers will continue to be served best by a dual regulation system that allows state responses to telemarketing practices.” The FCC is currently debating the petition and is expected to rule later this year.

While the Do Not Call registry was celebrated initially as a way to eliminate all bothersome calls, the national program has some significant limitations. For one thing, it doesn’t apply to nonprofit groups, pollsters or political organizations.

The telemarketing industry is also finding ways to adapt to the restrictions. Consumers who notice fewer cold calls at home may be getting more solicitations at work or through the mail or from companies with which they do business.

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