Legitimate direct marketers don't make robocalls

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Lois Greisman, associate director, Division of Marketing Practices, FTC
Lois Greisman, associate director, Division of Marketing Practices, FTC

Automation improves many things in life, but for consumers, automated outbound marketing calls usually aren't one of them. In fact, from October 2010 to June 2012 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has received more than 5.1 million complaints about these “robocalls.”

While consumers legally get robocalls—which use automated dialers and play prerecorded marketing messages—from organizations like political parties and charities, the problem centers around unsolicited and unwanted sales calls.

“There is a clear sense that legitimate telemarketers are not making robocalls,” says Lois Greisman, associate director of the FTC's Division of Marketing Practices, who helped lead an October robocall summit in Washington that examined technological advances and strategies designed to identify and prevent illegal robocalls.

Leading companies may not be robocalling, but someone is. Through all of 2011 the FTC received 1.4 million complaints about robocalls. Through only the first half of 2012 the

FTC received 1.2 million complaints. This spike comes the same year the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) increased restrictions around robocalls.

Under the new rules, which began last February but await the approval of the Office of Management and Budget, businesses that use robocalls must get written consent from customers to continue the practice, either by paper or electronic agreement. Previously, telemarketers could place the calls to people with whom they had “established business relationships,” such as email opt-ins. The amended rules also call for an opt-out device that consumers can engage during a call.

The FTC's attitude is that quality telemarketers should have no qualm with the new rules. Greisman says reputable telemarketers should embrace the changes, since robocallers can impugn the reputations of telemarketers or give a bad name to certain industries. “And there are always going to be people who want to get a call about a sale,” she says.

The FTC has responded aggressively to robocall violations. In March, a telemarketing outfit using robocalls was ordered to give up $3 million in assets. In April, defendants of a business that offered “cash grants” through robocalls was ordered to pay $30 million in civil penalties and to relinquish more than $1.1 million of gains from the scheme.

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