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Consumer Reports

New rules should rein in telemarketers | (KRT) If all goes as planned, the balance of power between consumers and telemarketers will undergo a seismic shift in the coming months.

The most-heralded change will be the new national "Do Not Call" list, which will supplement or replace lists already established by 26 states. You'll be able to sign up in coming weeks via a toll-free phone number or the Web. By Oct. 1, telemarketers will have to honor the new list or face penalties of up to $11,000 per violation.

But two other new rules adopted by the Federal Trade Commission may prove at least as important in the battle against unwanted calls.

One should put an end to the annoying, sometimes scary phenomenon of "dead air" calls - when your phone rings but no one is there when you answer. As of Oct. 1, most such calls must be connected to a telemarketer within two seconds.

The second key rule, which goes into effect Jan. 29, will prohibit telemarketers from blocking their phone numbers on Caller ID systems.

Together, the new list and rules should make it easier for consumers to avoid unwelcome calls, and for state and federal officials to pursue violators, according to Eileen Harrington, the FTC's associate director for marketing practices.

But they're not a panacea, as anyone on a statewide list probably knows. One looming challenge is the growing number of telemarketing calls originating abroad. Here are some questions and answers about what's coming:

I hear there are lots of exemptions? Because of limits in the FTC's jurisdiction, companies such as banks, long-distance phone companies, and airlines don't have to abide by its do-not-call list. But if those companies hire professional telemarketers to make their calls, the marketing company is required to honor it. The same rule applies to charities: They're exempt, but only if they make the calls themselves, not if they hire a telemarketing firm.

The FTC is hoping that some of the holes will be plugged by other federal agencies. The Federal Communications Commission, for instance, is considering a proposal to require companies that it regulates to abide by the national do-not-call list.

The biggest unanswered problem may be calls from companies with which you already have a business relationship, which can call you for 18 months from your last transaction. One solution is to ask to be put on that company's own do-not-call list, which trumps the exemption.

What's with these "dead air" calls? "Dead air" is the result of a special kind of automatic dialing system called a "predictive dialer." It can dial hundreds of numbers simultaneously, on the assumption that only a predictable fraction of calls will be answered by people rather than by machines. Only when a person answers does the call get routed to a telemarketer.

The problem is that telemarketers skimp on personnel because they'd rather keep you waiting than keep their personnel idle. That's why you get "dead air."

The FTC's solution is to prohibit dead air. You're supposed to be routed to a person within two seconds, but telemarketers are allowed a 3 percent failure rate. In those cases, you'll get a recorded message identifying who's calling - and no sales pitch.

I don't have Caller ID, so why does it matter to me that the FTC won't let marketers block their numbers? The goal here is to stop telemarketers from hiding behind an electronic veil, and thus to make enforcement of all the other rules easier. Those who have Caller ID will be able to report violators more specifically, benefiting us all. Harrington, the FTC official, says the agency plans to aggressively pursue companies that continue to block their numbers.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services