Fraud is an ongoing threat to teleservices industry

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My mother used to say don't "run with the wrong crowd, or you'll get a bad reputation." Good advice for anyone. Guilt by association applies in school and in business as well.

For 30 years, teleservices has been linked and maligned as a perpetrator of fraud. Every scam that has been played on railroad card, in alleyways, by mail or door-to-door has been tried in one way or another by telephone. Unlike other means of communication, teleservices, and in particular telemarketing, has been directly linked in the lexicon of policymakers to fraud. As a matter of record and fact, policymakers refer to telemarketing and fraud as one term repeatedly in the Congressional Record, during hearings and debates on consumer protection as if they are inextricably entwined.

Recent actions brought by attorneys general throughout the United States have found a wide variety of classic and new fraudulent acts being committed by criminals using the telephone. Activities which have earned criminal enforcement actions in the last year include illegal credit repair programs, misrepresentation of mortgage lending terms, charity scams and a host of other programs that have given rise to lawsuits, fines and other enforcement actions.

What can we do to separate the channel from its criminal use? There are several steps that need to be taken to break these ties.

Change the language. Each time a policymaker, voter or reporter uses the combined terms of telemarketing and fraud in the same phrase, we need to correct them. Through letters to the editor, phone calls to the stations or notes to the elected official, it is important to clarify the distinctions quickly.

Applaud the enforcement. Enforcement of laws against fraud is desirable and is worthy of our praise and thanks. The American Teleservices Association will begin recognizing law enforcement agencies for their good work in prosecuting the criminal people in our industry through providing press and awards at our Washington Summit on April 22-25 at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, VA.

Assist the prosecution. From time to time you may become aware of fraudulent activities being committed in contact centers within your city. This is the time to notify law enforcement agencies of the illegal activities. Be a positive force for change.

Educate the consumers. Many organizations including Consumers Union, AARP and others have developed guidelines for consumers to use when conducting business by telephone. The ATA is also in the process of developing consumer recommendations to avoid fraud, while still being able to enjoy the convenience and benefits of shopping and receiving services via telephone.

Strengthen the laws. Enforcement is only half of the deterrent equation; punishment completes the equation. The ATA advocates even stronger laws to severely punish those individuals that would choose to commit crimes by telephone.

The teleservices channel has moved through its adolescence, and needs to shed the naivete of youth. Fraud, and its perpetration by telephone, is not new, but it is time we took a new approach to it. Fraud is our problem when it tarnishes the reputation of the 5.3 million people who earn their living through the legitimate use of the teleservices channel.

We deserve to be proud of the contribution that is made to the U.S. economy by our companies, and remove those barriers to the positive reputation we have arned.

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