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CONSUMER WATCH

Marketers do a number on Do Not Call registry

There's an uptick in unsolicited pitches as violators use a new trick to flout the law.

November 25, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Remember the bad old days of unsolicited, telemarketing calls at home?

Jan Book is still living them.

"The phone rings and a woman says in a chipper voice, 'Hi, I'm Rachel and I have a wonderful opportunity for you today!' " said Book, who has been getting the recorded calls for the last six months even though she is on the national Do Not Call registry.

That registry, which took effect in 2003, bans unsolicited commercial pitches. But Book, who is a lawyer in Los Angeles, has gotten to know the recorded voice of Rachel all too well. Sometimes she calls twice in the same day.

"She offers me a deal on carpet cleaning," Book said.

Book isn't alone in suddenly getting telemarketing calls again after years of quiet.

"There has been an uptick in complaints we've been getting," said Al Shelden, the senior assistant state attorney general in charge of consumer law.

But many of the unsolicited calls, such as those from construction firms and credit card issuers in addition to the carpet cleaner, have a new twist.

The happy-go-lucky Rachel or other caller asks the consumer to leave contact information at the end of the recording. But the caller never gives the name of the company or a phone number. In addition, the phone number from the caller is blocked on Caller ID.

Without those pieces of information, it's almost impossible to file a Do Not Call complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which is the primary enforcer of the regulations.

"It's very clever," Book said. "I feel so irritated and helpless.

"It's like someone is pounding on my roof and I can't tell them to stop."

The state had Do Not Call regulations in place -- for unsolicited calls made within California -- even before the federal law went into effect.

And the California attorney general's office still has jurisdiction over in-state telemarketing calls.

"It was a very quiet area for a long time," Shelden said. "But now we are investigating a couple of companies."

He declined to name them.

Shelden said the increase in calls might be due partially to ignorance because there had not been much publicity about the issue since 2003, when the national registry took effect.

"But then again, it might be companies that are thinking, 'We don't care,' " Shelden said.

The Federal Trade Commission announced this month that it had won nearly $8 million in settlements from companies charged with Do Not Call violations.

The companies that agreed to pay up, without admitting any wrongdoing, included well-known names such as Ameriquest Mortgage Co. and ADT Security Services Inc.

The carpet-cleaning company, if it is violating the law, could be a lot harder to nab.

"By and large, a prerecorded call like that is illegal," said Lois Greisman, associate director of marketing practices at the FTC. "But generally we need the name of the actual seller or the name of the caller and ideally the number they're calling from."

But getting a name or number probably would require real interaction with the telemarketer. Book doesn't want to go that far.

Nor does Mary Sampson, a retired teacher in Yorba Linda who has been getting all three Cs of the recent wave of telemarketer calls: carpets, construction and credit cards.

"I am expected to press a number and give my name, address and phone number so that someone at the nameless company can call me with further information," Sampson said.

Not only was that prospect unpleasant, she worried that leaving the information could allow a company to say it had a business relationship with her.

It's true that if you have a legitimate business relationship with a company, it can call you within time limits, even if you're on the Do Not Call list.

That limit is 90 days within the time you express interest in a product. It stretches to 18 months if you actually buy a company product.

More rules are mentioned on the official Do Not Call site, www.donotcall.gov.

But Sampson need not worry in this case.

"If the initial call to you is illegal," Greisman said, "you are not establishing a business relationship."

Besides, there is an out for consumers even if they do enter into a business relationship under the rules.

If a company legitimately calls but you no longer want to be contacted, all you have to do is tell the caller not to phone again. Legally, the company has to stop.

Of course, if a company breaks the law in the first place by cold-calling someone on the Do Not Call list, there's a good chance that it won't pay attention to other regulations.

And getting a live person on the line might not help, even if you get the number of the caller from your Caller ID service.

Paul Oppenheim, a retired television soundman who lives in West Hollywood, got an unsolicited call from a construction company.

"I was so angry," he recalled. "A few minutes later I called them back."

Luckily, he had the number saved on his Caller ID.

But when Oppenheim called it, he got a phone sex line. He quickly hung up.

Either the construction company was an oddly diversified operation or perhaps the telemarketing outfit had figured out a way to trick the Caller ID device.

Either way, Oppenheim gave up.

"The Do Not Call site says to keep a diary with times, numbers and such," Oppenheim said, "but it's a Catch-22 if I can't get the real story from the callers."

--

david.colker@latimes.com

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