Scam Fears Hinder Teleservices Fundraising

Efforts by the teleservices industry to use outbound calling to raise funds for disaster relief have been hampered by consumer fears of fundraising scams.

A group of American Teleservices Association members that set out the weekend after the terrorist attacks to call consumers with information on how to donate to the Red Cross faced heavy resistance. A test campaign conducted Sept. 15, a Saturday, was called off by the Red Cross in the afternoon after cold calls generated inquiries and some complaints to local Red Cross chapters and even police.

The teleservices firm involved did not attempt to collect money but rather tried to inform consumers of toll-free hotlines they could call to donate money or give blood. But warnings from authorities about disaster-related telemarketing scams raised consumer fears to such a level that even that gesture was met with suspicion, said Gary Discount, vice president of business development at Tele-Response Center, Philadelphia, which organized the ATA drive.

“I understand the Red Cross' point,” he said. “It had to stop.”

The telemarketing effort appeared to show initial success, Discount said. As a show of appreciation, the Red Cross planned to hold a teleconference with the companies that participated in the short-lived campaign.

However, the industry helped the Red Cross in other ways. Consulting firm EDS lent a call center in Mechanicsburg, PA, to the Red Cross after its teleservices provider, Patriot Communications, was overwhelmed with inbound donation calls immediately after the terrorist attacks.

The Red Cross' fiber-optics carrier, McLeodUSA, contacted EDS for help after it learned of Patriot's situation. EDS began preparing to receive overflow calls to the Red Cross' 800/HELP-NOW hotline the evening of Sept. 12. Volunteers underwent training and began testing the system.

The agents were taking calls by 11:10 p.m. Sept. 12, and by 8 a.m. Sept. 13 had processed 763 donations of $50 or more. Later that afternoon, one surprised EDS agent took a call for a donation of $100,000, one of the largest single donations received by the Red Cross to date.

When the operation got fully under way, 50 volunteer agents were taking calls, representing about 25 percent of the call volume to 800/HELP-NOW. EDS later added 36 more seats to the effort from a call center in Troy, MI.

To date, EDS agents have taken more than 65,000 calls to the Red Cross.

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