Legislature considers telemarketing bills

Saturday, February 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Telemarketers call Wayne Ratcliff's home in Durant more often than he thinks they should.

And when Ratcliff gets up to answer the telephone, there is frequently no one on the other end of the line.

``It's not unusual to have three or four non-answer calls in a day,'' Ratcliff said. ``I think it's very impolite, poor business manners.''

Ratcliff is one of thousands of Oklahomans who are contacted by telemarketers every day. And he is among a growing number of people who are fed up with so-called ``dead calls'' _ solicitations by telemarketers who dial more than one number at a time.

``It's pretty annoying,'' said Lavonne Raymond, a retired Tulsan. ``You get up and go to the other end of the house to answer the phone and there's nobody there, except clicks.''

Growing frustration with telemarketers has prompted several state lawmakers to file legislation to end ``dead calls'' and permit Oklahomans to place their names on a ``don't call'' list whose numbers would be off limits to telemarketers.

``We think this is an opportunity for individuals, regardless of their age, to be able to elect to accept this kind of telemarketing or say no, I don't want it,'' said Dan Brandt, a retiree and coordinator of consumer issues for the American Association of Retired Persons in Oklahoma.

The telemarketing legislation was requested by the AARP, which represents 398,000 people in Oklahoma, many of them elderly.

``We have a tremendous amount of our membership who consider consumer fraud as important, as well as privacy issues,'' said former state Rep. Sean Voskuhl, a lobbyist for AARP.

``Some of them don't want to be called, they don't want to be bothered,'' he said.

Ratcliff, a member of the AARP's executive council in Oklahoma, called the calls an annoyance, especially for older people.

``What if their children were trying to call? What if a physical disability made it difficult to get to the phone?'' he added.

Twenty states already have ``Don't Call'' programs where residents can place their telephone numbers on a list of names telemarketers cannot call.

At least 10 other states, including Kansas and Illinois, are considering similar programs. The Federal Trade Commission is studying a national ``Don't Call'' program.

A bill scheduled to be heard by the House Energy and Utility Regulation Committee on Tuesday would create a ``Don't Call'' program patterned after one launched in Missouri last year.

``This legislation has not only been extremely effective, it has also been very popular with the population,'' said Attorney General Drew Edmondson, whose office would administer the program.

``We do not like being interrupted by sales people. We particularly don't like being called during meal times. Most of us find those calls very annoying,'' he said.

A separate bill by Rep. Fred Perry, R-Tulsa, would require telemarketers to use predictive dialing software to prevent ``dead calls.''

The calls occur when telemarketers use equipment that dials and engages more than one number at a time. The first customer to answer is connected to the seller, but the remaining customers whose numbers were dialed hear nothing when they answer the phone.

Perry's measure was approved by the House Energy and Utility Regulation Committee last week and sent to the full House for action.

Although popular with many consumers, ``Don't Call'' legislation is opposed by The Direct Marketing Association, a national organization with almost 5,000 members, including many telemarketers.

``We think it's a bad idea for states to be doing this,'' said DMA spokesman Lou Mastria. Mastria said DMA has had a national ``Don't Call'' list for 17 years that has accumulated 4.5 million telephone numbers that member telemarketers are prohibited from calling.

``Our list will eliminate about 80 percent of the calls you would ordinarily get,'' Mastria said.

But Brandt said the group's attempt to govern itself does not have the enforcement muscle that the state's chief law enforcement officer can wield.

``If we're going to be able to be any kind of watchdog on industry...then you almost have to have legislation within the state,'' he said.

Scott Holste, a spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General's Office, said Missouri has assessed about $500,000 in fines against telemarketers who called some of the 910,000 telephone customers on Missouri's ``Don't Call'' list since the program went into effect on July 1.

They included a $75,000 fine assessed against TV ad psychic Miss Cleo, who was accused of telephoning Missourians in spite of warnings.

``She just didn't see that one coming,'' Holste said.

``We think it's been very successful, both from the point of Missourians signing up for the no-call list and taking aggressive action against telemarketers who violate the list,'' he said.

Mastria said telemarketers are concerned about being unfairly penalized by the growing number of ``Don't Call'' lists.

The telephone marketing industry employed 57,000 people in Oklahoma in 1999, Mastria said. Nationwide, 6 million people were responsible for $660 billion in sales by the industry last year, he said.

But Holste said it is unlikely that ``Don't Call'' programs will stunt the industry's growth.

``The telemarketers aren't going to be making any fewer calls, they're just going to be calling different people,'' Holste said.