First day of no-call list gives service hang ups

Thursday, October 2, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The national do-not-call list went into effect Wednesday, but a complex legal fight has made it impossible for the government to judge its ability to stop unwanted calls from telemarketers.

Reacting to court decisions that threatened to derail the free service, the government scrambled to rework the system a day before it went into effect, turning the public away from a dedicated do-not-call Web site and phone number that had been promoted for months. Instead, officials directed people to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission.

On Wednesday, the largest telemarketing association, which said many of its members would abide by the list despite the legal uncertainty, launched its own Web site and phone number to take complaints.

"This is one silly situation. It's a real shame for consumers that this has become so complicated," said Adam Goldberg, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. "Consumers need to just hang in there. This is eventually going to work."

The FCC said it received about 250 complaints about telemarketers by Wednesday afternoon, most of them from people registered with the do-not-call list who said they were still being called. The list contains more than 50 million home and cell phone numbers.

The agency received nearly five times as many inquiries from people who wanted to sign up for the list even though it is the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, that registers phone numbers. And the FTC is shutting down registration.

"The worst part is that consumers don't understand what on earth is going on," FCC chairman Michael Powell said at a news conference. He said his agency is prepared for a large volume of complaints and he is confident the legal problems will be solved.

Telemarketers and government officials say it could be days before it is known how effective the list is at preventing unwanted calls.

Companies could face thousands of dollars in fines each time they call a registered number.

The FTC was blocked from operating and enforcing the list last week by U.S. District Judge Edward W. Nottingham in Denver, who said the program violates the free speech rights of telemarketers. The FTC asked the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday to suspend Nottingham's ruling while the agency appeals.

Attorneys for several telemarketer groups on Wednesday asked the appeals court to reject that request, saying that the court should not allow that agency to enforce the list even though "the FTC may feel a great deal of political pressure after hyping the registry then botching its implementation."

Late Wednesday, the court's three-judge panel told the telemarketer groups and the FTC to comment by the end of the week on a proposal to combine three different appeals concerning the do-not-call list.

Many telemarketers also are confused, with many unsure about which numbers can and can't be called and what actions will result in penalties.

The do-not-call list requires telemarketers to pay for a copy of the list so they can know whom to avoid calling. Many telemarketers have the list, but some do not and cannot obtain it since the FTC shut down that aspect of the program on Sunday in response to the court ruling.

The FTC has been getting calls from scores of confused telemarketers unsure about how to obtain and comply with the list, agency spokeswoman Jen Schwartzman said. The trade commission is directing telemarketers to the FCC, which can only penalize those who have the list.

The FCC's Powell sent a letter Wednesday to major telemarketers asking for copies of their do-not-call lists since the courts have blocked the FTC from providing the information. The Direct Marketing Association, the largest industry group, asked its members to comply with the request.

Government officials are directing consumers who registered phone numbers to submit complaints about telemarketing calls to the FCC at its Web site, by sending an e-mail, by mailing a letter or by calling 1-888-225-5322.

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