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Red Light for Telemarketers

May 19, 2003

Ah, the pleasure of taking even the simplest action against dinner- interrupting telemarketers who begin their pitches with those syrupy inquiries, "How are you doing today, Mr. ... ah ... well, how are you today?" As though they remotely care. As though you remotely want to tell them.

Now people can register their phone numbers online with the state of California, which will forward them to the Federal Trade Commission under a new law that forces telemarketers to check the numbers and not call them anymore. The law doesn't go into effect until October, and some calls will continue, but it beats repeating the seemingly worthless mantra: "Please take me off your call list."

Filling out the form at nocall.doj.state.ca.us takes less than a minute. (Beware of any other sites. Fake registries are popping up online.)

The federal law doesn't cover banks, airlines or phone companies or calls made within a state, but a parallel California law does. Exempt from the laws are charities, small local enterprises and companies with which you already do business.

A bigger problem will be backing up those laws with action. The modest fines for infractions -- up to $11,000 under federal law and $1,000 per violation under California's -- give telemarketers reason to break the law. The fines don't begin to cover the cost of taking a company into court, and telemarketing boiler rooms are as rife as the fake prizes they offer. Bureaucrats promise tough enforcement, but consumers can rightly question whether budget-crunched agencies will give high priority to nickel operations.

Under state law, Californians can take violators to small claims court for up to $1,000. That's enough to pay for some nice, uninterrupted dinners out.

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