Home-to-Cell Switch Poses Trouble for Telemarketers

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Telemarketing calls to cellular phones, an increasing concern among consumers, could become even more of an issue next year when customers will be able to switch their residential phone numbers to their wireless phones.


The change is scheduled for Nov. 24, 2003, and is part of a congressional effort to open the telecommunications industry to increased competition. By allowing consumers to keep their home phone numbers when they switch to cellular phones, federal authorities aim to remove barriers that prevent consumers from switching telephone services.


However, the move may have the unintended effect of blurring the line between cell phone and residential telephone numbers, making it difficult for telemarketers to avoid calls to cell phones.


"Last year, it would be a phone ringing in the kitchen," said Jim Conway, vice president of governmental affairs at the Direct Marketing Association. "Now, it's a cell phone. It's a huge problem."


Currently, telecommunications providers limit cell phones to certain ranges of extensions, the last four digits of a telephone number, within certain exchanges and area codes, said Joseph Sanscrainte, general counsel with Call Compliance Inc., a telemarketing compliance provider.


Using this information, telemarketers can avoid calling consumer cell phones. Besides causing consumer annoyance, telemarketing calls to cell phones are illegal when made using automated dialing equipment, under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.


All that could change if consumers begin turning their home phone numbers into cell phone numbers en masse. Telemarketers would have to depend on do-not-call lists, both those maintained by the states and those they maintain themselves to keep track of people who have requested they no longer be called, to stay out of the cell phone trap.


"There's no difference in blocking calls to cell phones as opposed to blocking calls to land lines," Sanscrainte said.


The DMA is working with the Federal Communications Commission to devise ways to help telemarketers avoid inadvertently calling cell phones, Conway said. The DMA prohibits its members from intentionally calling cell phones, but ways to stop accidental calls are proving elusive.


"There's no specific answer yet," Conway said. "It's embryonic."


Meanwhile, legislators are beginning to catch up with technology, Sanscrainte said. In Illinois, the state legislature is considering a law that would ban all telemarketing calls to cell phones.


California allows its residents to place cell phone numbers on the state's DNC list, and Missouri lawmakers are considering a similar rule. U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-NJ, has proposed a bill that would ban commercial text messages to wireless devices.


Wireless providers also are acting to protect their customer base from marketers who target cell phones in their marketing. In October 2001, Acacia National Mortgage Corp. settled a lawsuit with Verizon Wireless by promising not to send text messages to Verizon cell phone users.


Acacia sent "thousands" of text messages to Verizon Wireless customers, first in Arizona and later in Colorado, said Verizon Wireless spokesman Brian Wood. Verizon Wireless sued under Colorado's anti-spam law.


Pervasive problems like the Acacia campaign are rare, Wood said. Commercial text messages have yet to be adopted by marketers, largely because wireless text messaging, which is popular overseas, has yet to catch on in the United States, he said. Informal surveys of Verizon Wireless customer service reps have revealed that even complaints of traditional voice telemarketing calls to cell phones are only an occasional problem.


The company reimburses its customers for cell phone minutes lost due to unsolicited telemarketing calls. Verizon Wireless often finds that the calls that generate customer complaints actually were permission-based, usually due to a Web site or sweepstakes with which the consumer registered and subsequently forgot.


Nevertheless, Wood cautioned telemarketers against targeting cell phones. Consumers see their cell phones as their "personal" lines and resent having to pay cell phone charges for marketing messages, he said.


Telemarketing to cell phones also opens a new realm of unexplored legal ground for telemarketers, Wood said. For example, a consumer who gets into an accident after receiving a telemarketing call while driving a vehicle might sue the telemarketer for damages.


"I think the whole area of telemarketing to handsets, unsolicited stuff, seems to be pretty dangerous," Wood said. "You don't know where people are when they get the message. It's a much different experience."


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