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Last Updated: Monday, 14 July, 2003, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
Americans say 'do not call me'
Sarah Toyne
By Sarah Toyne
BBC News Online consumer affairs reporter

Americans have been rushing to register
The phone rings, it could be that long awaited job offer or a cherished love one, but your heart sinks because it is another telesales call.

Even in the home of telesales - the US - they are now dealing with the sales call menace.

The new national "Do Not Call Registry" is an online database which has been set up to cut the number of unwanted sales calls Americans receive at home.

In 1999, the UK government introduced legislation aimed at tackling the same problem.

But four years on, BBC News Online can reveal that despite a steady flow of complaints, firms flouting the rules are getting off scot-free.

American example

Since 27 June, when the American national registry was launched, a staggering 23 million numbers have been registered.

The stampede is aimed at stemming the 100 million telemarketing calls made each day to American homes.

The register is likely to swell even further, especially as 14 million numbers from existing state registries are expected to sign up this summer.

The phenomenon, enabled by the internet, is a far cry from Alaska's "black dot law" - one of the original state schemes.

Under this scheme, a black dot next to phone book entries acts as a coded way of saying that a sales call is about as desirable as an ice delivery in winter.

In the first few days of the Do Not Call Registry, the demand was so great that some internet service providers' thought the number of e-mails dispatched from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) servers were spam.

Teething problems

One early criticism was that individual numbers could be deleted by anyone logging onto the service.

But the FTC says this issue has now been sorted. It is only possible to delete numbers by telephone - and only if the call is being made from the number being removed.

Alaska black dot law was one of the first solutions to the problem
David Torok, staff attorney at the FTC, puts the rush of numbers down to the effect of an increase in "predictive diallers", technology increasingly used by telesales companies in the last few years.

"It is what allowed telesalers to decrease their costs and increase the number of calls they were making," he tells BBC News Online.

The FTC can impose $11,000 fines on companies who breach the list, and he predicts take-up will be in the region of 60 million.

Mr Torok is surprisingly cautious about the hoo-ha the new service is creating.

"Pleased is a good word to use. It's showing we weren't wrong. Consumers really have a desire for this service."

UK experience

The 23 million numbers registered in less than two weeks in America is a topic of conversation at the UK's Office of the Information Commissioner.

The UK system has been around a lot longer, and three million numbers have been registered.

Most of the numbers were added after May 1999, when it became unlawful to place a direct marketing call to an individual who has objected, either directly to a particular company or has put their number on the register.

Consumer numbers are stored on a central register known as the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).

The legislation also covers faxes: a bigger problem which attracts about 600 complaints a week to the TPS from people on the "do not call" fax list.

Unwanted mail is not yet covered by the legislation. The system is self-regulated by the Direct Marketing Association, an industry body.

Making a complaint

Brits who do not want to be contacted by telesales companies can register their number with the TPS.

Why would you market to people who have said they do not want to hear from you?
Phil Jones, Assistant Information Commissioner
In the UK, companies must comply with the request no later than 28 days after the request was made - and it is up to telemarketing companies to screen this list.

If your number is on the list, receive an unwanted call and then complain, the company could face a fine of up to 5,000 for each enforced complaint.

But BBC News Online has learnt that no one has been fined for breaches, even though there are 250 complaints each week from people who have received unwanted calls, and whose numbers are on the list.

According to Tessa Kelly, the TPS' director of compliance operations, more than half of these on average get passed over to the Information Commissioner.


So, what's going on?

Phil Jones, an assistant commissioner specialising in telecoms, says the office is only interested in companies that are "wilfully and continuously contravening the regulations".

He says it is inevitable there will be some errors.

Mr Jones also says it is not logical that companies would try to make a determined effort to flout the rules.

"Why would you market to people who have said they do not want to hear from you?" he says.

The other reason is resources.

Under the rules, companies can only be fined if an enforcement notice has been upheld and they continue to act in breach - a lengthy process.

As there are more problems with unwanted fax calls, his office has been concentrating more resources on trying to sort out this problem.

Through his office's work, nine companies have received enforcement notices in the past year.

And while some may argue telesales companies may be getting an easy ride, the hardline policy on faxes appears to be making progress.

TPS' Ms Kelly says they used to receive 2,000 complaints about faxes a week - this number has now dropped to 600.

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