Threat Incident Brings More Scrutiny for Telemarketers

Telemarketers are nursing yet another black eye as authorities in Colorado investigate a threatening call made recently to a consumer living near Denver that led to the loss of a big-name client for one teleservices agency.

The incident calls into question the hiring practices of outbound telemarketers, whose employees have access to detailed personal information about the people they call. According to one call center recruiting expert, telemarketers need to be more scientific about their hiring and rely less on the gut feelings they get from interviewing potential employees.

For Jeff Furst, president/CEO of call center hiring specialist FurstPerson Inc., Chicago, the incident highlights the importance of a thorough screening process for teleservices hires, which is lacking in many cases, he said. Most call centers rely on basic background checks such as references and criminal history to spot potentially troublesome hires, he said.

According to a news report from KUSA 9News in Denver, a consumer complained that, after he hung up on a telemarketing call offering long-distance telephone service, the agent called back and left an expletive-filled message on his voice mail. In the voice mail, the agent threatened to come to the consumer’s house and kill him, KUSA 9News said.

Teleperformance USA, a U.S. subsidiary of global teleservices conglomerate SR. Teleperformance, employed the call center agent alleged to be responsible for the threat in the Colorado case and subsequently lost its contract with telecom company Qwest as a result of the incident. The agent no longer works for Teleperformance, the agency has stated.

For investigators in Jefferson County, CO, where the victim lives, the case has brought unexpected attention, with newspapers and TV news outlets carrying the story in nearby Denver as well as Salt Lake City, the headquarters of Teleperformance.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department is handling the incident as a simple phone harassment case, said department spokesman Jim Shires.

Though the case has taken on a life of its own since it was first reported, investigators consider it unlikely that the perpetrator of the threat would come to Colorado, Shires said. The sheriff’s department has the name of the agent they suspect is responsible and is trying to obtain his address and phone number, he said.

Furst said he advocates in-depth testing, using approaches such as question-and-answer tests given over the Internet, role-playing games and auditions. Tests can’t weed out all problem candidates, but they deliver more objective results than interviews, he said. Interviews give employers a good idea of a candidate’s work habits, Furst said. But they often fail to convey other important attributes, such as problem-solving skills, desire to perform and ability to handle rejection and stress.

Furst acknowledged that his approach may “sound like overkill.” However, cases like the harassment incident in Colorado show the importance of thoroughly screening employees, he said.

“In our eyes, many call centers don’t have an in-depth screening process for new hires,” he said.

The Colorado incident wasn’t the first time a telemarketer has been accused of phone threats. In December 2002, a Burlington County, NJ, woman told an area TV news outlet that a telemarketer threatened to rape her. Sgt. Kevin Rehmann, spokesman for the New Jersey State Police, said the complaint was never verified and no charges were filed. Telemarketers are far more likely to annoy consumers than to threaten them, he said, and harassing phone calls generally don’t emanate from call centers.

In November 2001, April Jordan, a Dallas resident, sued a telemarketer on charges that her daughter had received a letter from a Utah prison inmate who obtained her personal information from a jailhouse telemarketing operation.

SandStar Entertainment settled the case out of court, and Jordan now says she no longer feels that her safety is threatened, though the inmate who wrote the letter reportedly was released from prison in March.

“I’m hoping he’s gone his own way,” Jordan said. “You have to deal with the situation as best you can at the time. But you don’t stop living.”

These days, Jordan’s ire is directed at the Federal Trade Commission, which declined to make new rules for inmate telemarketing when it reviewed its telemarketing regulations last year. Jordan joined privacy advocates in pressing for a ban on inmate telemarketing and testified at an FTC public hearing on the rule review in June 2002.

“It was disheartening,” she said. “They had the opportunity to make them more accountable for their behavior, and they let it go.”

However, in a Federal Register notice published in January 2003 to announce a revamp of its telemarketing regulations, the FTC noted that evidence of harassment by inmate telemarketing agents pointed only to isolated incidents. More than 90 percent of inmate telemarketers work on government informational projects, such as taking inbound calls for a state tourist center, and thus fall outside the scope of the FTC’s telemarketing rules, the agency said.

A General Accounting Office study in 1999 showed that only nine incidents of misuse by inmate telemarketers occurred over eight years, and only three of those involved a private calling campaign, the FTC noted. The agency concluded that the risks of harm from inmate telemarketing don’t outweigh the benefits they bring in rehabilitating convicts.

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