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Consumer Watch

Lifting call centers' anonymity

October 12, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

You call customer support and the person who answers has a heavy accent.

Have you reached India? The Philippines? New Jersey?

If the Call Center Consumer's Right to Know Act makes it through Congress, you'll know without asking. The bill would require anyone answering or initiating a call at a center used by a U.S. business to disclose location.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), requires that the disclosure come at the beginning of the call. It also applies to centers in the U.S.

"It may make a difference for people in deciding who they will do business with," said Altmire, whose bill has attracted 25 co-sponsors including two from Southern California -- Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista).

"If you call an American-based business, you have the right to know if the call is going overseas."

The person at the call center would, he said, have to start out by saying something like "My name is so-and-so, and I'm in India."

The Federal Trade Commission, however, warned that the bill as currently written was broad enough to cover almost any business, including mom-and-pop shops just down the street.

The bill would apply "to all entities that have telephone contact with consumers," the agency said in a statement presented last month before the House subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection.

"This would likely include local pizza parlors, flower shops or even doctors' offices."

Altmire said he didn't consider that a bad thing.

"I want people to know, if they are calling their local pizza shop, if the call is being picked up outside the country," he said.

But Altmire said he was willing to modify the bill if it's viewed in Congress as being too broad.

He took issue with other objections by the FTC, which would be in charge of implementing the law.

The agency said it would be "a potentially costly burden" to enforce a requirement that all U.S. businesses with call centers certify annually that they're in compliance.

Altmire said he did not consider the bill an undue burden on the agency.

"All we are doing is serving notice of what country people are talking to," he said.

He cites privacy concerns. There have indeed been cases of overseas call-center operators pilfering personal identity information or even holding it for ransom.

That's been done stateside too, but it can be tough to enforce U.S. privacy laws in foreign countries.

But Altmire's main target is outsourcing. He wants American consumers to know that the companies they're dealing with are using overseas workers.

"It's no different from putting an 'American-made' label on a T-shirt," he said.

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david.colker@latimes.com

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