Misleading Insert Hurts Industry

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Several months ago, while in the office of the attorney general of one of the major mid-western states, I was perusing the brochures and information that are provided visitors to the office. One of the pamphlets I viewed concerned telemarketing, and I was horrified to read the litany of potential abuses detailed and the cautions given to residents of that state. If one were to judge the industry by reading that pamphlet, one would conclude that the telemarketing industry is predominantly dishonest.


Successful political campaigns by an attorney general are sometimes fueled by the incumbent creating a fear disproportionate to reality, then telling the voters how they have been "saved." The harangue against the telemarketing industry, spurred by the regulators, has been repeated, expanded and amplified by the media, but who out there is speaking for the legitimatetelemarketing industry? Trade associations accomplish many positive things, but have been unsuccessful in stopping the avalanche of bad media. The critics, not the industry, have seized the issue - fraud and deceit sell far more effectively in the public relations arena than does quiet, honest, and efficient service.


With all of this attention you would, in all likelihood, conclude that telemarketers are the number one source of consumer complaints. In essence, they are not. Each year the National Association of Attorneys General releases its top ten list of consumer complaints. Number one is automobile-related problems and number two is home repair, followed by credit and retail sales, including mail order. Notwithstanding the fact it may top the list for criticism, actual telemarketing complaints rank fourth (up from ninth position).


It was but a short while after reading the pamphlet in the attorney general's office that a client of our firm, a major telemarketing service bureau, sent me an insert that was enclosed with its telephone bill. The client was outraged over the insert, and justifiably so since the company was paying a large amount of money to the telephone company each month. The insert was a caution to take control when telemarketers call. For example, the telephone company advised their customers they could have their name removed from future calling lists upon request. In a pejorative tone the insert further advised that recipients of telemarketing calls ask the callers their name, number and who they are calling for, and what they are calling about, further advising them that it is illegal for telemarketers to call before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays, and before noon or after 9 p.m. on Sundays. Telemarketers, the insert said, must end the call within 10 seconds if consumers show no interest. The client was knowledgeable enough to know that many of these cautions and statements were grossly incorrect. I wrote a letter to the chief counsel for the telephone company, and sent copies to the chairman, president and chief executive officer of the company. My letter first addressed the inaccuracy of the do-not-call requirement because under state law and the Telephone Sales Rule certain calls are exempt from the do-not-call provisions. For example, calls to businesses are exempt as are calls from nonprofits or sales calls to existing customers. None of these exceptions were noted in the insert, leaving the recipient to believe these rules applied to all calls. This particular state had no provision requiring that a telephone call must end within 10 seconds after a resident indicates they are not interested, and the statement regarding the restricted calling periods was inaccurate. I informed the company that some of their largest customers were telemarketing service bureaus, and that according to recent figures there are approximately 200,000 individuals employed by the telemarketing industry in that specific state. I concluded my letter with the statement: "Let us isolate those who are irresponsible, but not paint with such a broad brush, whereby legitimate businesses are unfairly depicted. While legitimate consumer protection issues exist, I believe that your notice should accurately describe the law and not misinform citizens to some business' detriment. . . Why not educate the public on the value of the telemarketing industry, and then describe fairly and accurately the rights of consumers who choose not to take advantage of the opportunities presented? This would be doing a service to your customers -- the consumer, as well as the telemarketing industry." I received a prompt reply to my letter from the vice president and general counsel for the company who responded in part, "My investigation of this bill insert and the circumstances surrounding its creation and release leads me to conclude that it was ill-advised." There was also a concession that the insert's reference to requiring telemarketers to terminate a call within 10 seconds if the consumer did not want to talk was apparently based upon a newspaper article discussing a law in another state! The author of the letter conceded that no such requirement existed in the state in which the telephone bill insert was distributed. It was obvious that no one knowledgeable to the industry reviewed the insert prior to it being sent out. It was a lost opportunity, leaving residents of that state more likely to be suspicious of all calls. It was somewhat gratifying to "pull the tail" of a major company, but there is a far more important lesson to learn. There are so many means available to reach out to the consumer and tell them about the value of having the opportunity to learn, shop and communicate by the most personal of all media -- the telephone. Why don't all telemarketing service bureaus contact their supplier of telephone services and ask them to create meaningful inserts to include with their billing statements about the benefits and virtues of a well-regulated and honestly conducted industry, which creates jobs and provides an important service to a large segment of the population? It makes good common sense.


Errol Copilevitz is the senior partner of Copilevitz and Canter,


P.C., a law firm with offices in Kansas City, MO, and Washington, DC.
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