Stamp out New Jersey's no-solicit bill

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Marketers should be wary of a new no-mail Trojan horse at the door. Four Democratic Assembly members in New Jersey have won 38 more co-sponsors to a bill creating a "do-not-solicit" credit card registry for senior citizens and other vulnerable consumers in their state.

The bill, introduced in January, is before the full New Jersey Assembly and could be voted on as early as Dec. 11, per senior editor Melissa Campanelli's article in this issue.

There are several things wrong in this picture. But let's first tackle the details of the bill. Its aim is to require New Jersey to open and maintain a credit card do-not-solicit registry with the submitted names of mentally ill individuals and senior citizens who are not to be pitched for credit cards.

The bill specifies that no registered vulnerable consumer or senior citizen would be liable for any amount resulting from the use of an unsolicited credit card. It acknowledges that any violation is an unlawful practice under the Consumer Fraud Act but that the credit card firm should not be held liable if it complied with the bill's requirements and pitched by mistake.

Credit card firms still could mail normal credit card offers, but not to those New Jersey consumers who don't understand the mechanics of credit cards as they rack up debt.

From a distance, the intentions seem noble. Create a registry and model it on the Federal Trade Commission's do-not-call list. Protect consumers from being preyed upon. Do the right thing by your constituents.

The whole effort is likely to cost $1 million to $4 million. We wish this money were spent on education, rather than legislation that simply duplicates what's out there.

The federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act already lets consumers opt out of credit card offers. And the punishment for violators under the Consumer Fraud Act is a fine of up to $10,000 for the first offense and up to $20,000 for subsequent violations.

Why add another law to the tangled web already out there? And who needs another state law to be more loyal than the king and outdo federal protections? Besides, the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service is ideal for those who don't like mail.

The New Jersey Assembly bill has no sponsors in the state Senate. But that is little comfort. New York, Hawaii, Missouri and Illinois also debuted do-not-mail legislation this year.

A bill that starts with good intentions could quickly develop tentacles that throttle trade and commerce between states. If the New Jersey bill is enacted into law, there's a fair chance it might soon morph into an omnibus do-not-mail registry. Imagine what that would do not just to credit card companies but marketers of all hues using the U.S. Postal Service and carriers like FedEx, UPS and DHL. Imagine the effect on the carriers, printers, paper mills and ink makers. Imagine the effect on ad agencies. Imagine the effect on the employees, many of them in New Jersey.

Marketers and industry lobbies must act before it's too late. We make more laws at our own peril. You don't want this country to become inhospitable to business. See the flight of IPOs to the London Stock Exchange and Hong Kong. That business was once the New York Stock Exchange's bailiwick. Blame cumbersome regulation for that.

Politicians and lawyers have tried it with other industries. Now they've got mail in their sights. Whatever happened to the notion of individual responsibility? You don't like the mail? Don't open it. Have states educate their citizens on the existing laws to protect them. And if one day should a do-not-mail registry become a reality, then make sure that includes a ban on the delivery of political mail. And no freedom of speech defense, please.

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