Thursday, March 03, 2005

New Jersey takes up the fight to protect Do Not Call

Like Indiana, New Jersey is also taking up the fight to protect state Do Not Call Laws from pre-emption by federal bureaucrats. NorthJersey.com has the background:

Do-not-call rule in N.J. challenged
Sunday, February 13, 2005

By KEVIN DeMARRAIS

Enjoying the peace and quiet at home, without calls from telemarketers?

By all indications, the national do-not-call rules have been an overwhelming success for consumers since they kicked in 17 months ago. And it's been even better for us in New Jersey and several other states whose rules are more restrictive than those developed by two federal agencies.

But our edge could be disappearing shortly if some trade groups have their way.

Responding to petitions from telemarketers and trade associations, the Federal Communications Commission is considering rules that would force New Jersey and six other states to dump their own rules in favor of weaker national standards.

The petitions are under review and a decision could come soon.

First, a quick history lesson.

As the federal government was twiddling its thumbs on establishing a do-not-call registry, New Jersey and several other states passed laws to limit calls from telemarketers. Each law was quite similar in intent, but they differed in details.

At the same time, there was a jurisdictional dispute between the Federal Trade Commission, which was pushing to implement national do-not-call rules, and the FCC, which was not.

That was significant because the FCC has authority to regulate telemarketing by telephone companies, airlines, banks, credit card companies and insurance companies -some of the most persistent telemarketers.

The FCC finally came onboard in June 2003 - a month after New Jersey enacted its law - and that eliminated many loopholes. As a result, many states hung up on their own programs, leaving the job - and the cost — to the feds.

But not New Jersey. The state turned list management over to the federal regulators, but retained what its sponsors called the toughest do-not-call law in the nation.

The big difference was the "existing relationships" clause.

Under federal rules, which took effect on Oct. 1, 2003, consumers who sign up could still receive calls from businesses with which they had relationships for 18 months (after making a purchase or payment) or three months (if they merely requested information).

The New Jersey law, however, allows calls only if the service or product being sold is directly related to what was the basis of the relationship.

For example, if you have a checking account at the Hackensack National Bank, the feds allow Hackensack telemarketers to call with offers for anything the bank sells, from life insurance to credit cards to mutual funds. New Jersey's law says they can call only with checking account offers.

Charities, political organizations and organizations conducting surveys are also exempt from both sets of regulations.

Consumers have certainly embraced the do-not-call rules, whether the state or federal version.

More than 64 million phones have been registered, including 2.8 million - or two out of three residential lines - in New Jersey.

Consumers have filed more than 675,000 complaints about unwanted calls, including 2,600 in the state, said Genene Morris, a spokeswoman for the Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the program.

The feds have filed nine lawsuits against alleged violators, but the state has not yet taken action, which is somewhat surprising when you consider the promise of aggressive enforcement when the law was passed.

However, there is a reason, Morris said. More than 70 percent of the complaints were filed late last year, and many are under review or investigation.

Although consumers praise do-not-call, organizations such as the American Teleservices Association (ATA) and the Consumers Bankers Association have petitioned the FCC to overturn laws in New Jersey and six other states, FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball said.

"Too restrictive," the ATA says in its petition. "The New Jersey rules fail to provide a personal relationship exemption."

The bankers association takes a similar approach in Wisconsin, saying that the differences between the state and federal laws creates "multiple, conflicting regulations" that make it "very difficult to reach existing customers."

But the states are fighting back. The state has launched a new Web site, nj.gov/protectdonotcall, to make it easy for residents to express their views to the FCC. And last week, in an attempt to drum up support, acting Governor Codey sent e-mails to residents with links to that site.

"I am adamantly opposed to any attempt to weaken New Jersey's do-not-call program," Codey said. "This threat - pushed for by telemarketers who want to weaken our law - is very real."

Officially, it's too late for consumers to object to the FCC on the ATA petition - the comment period closed in December - but consumers who want our more restrictive rules to remain can still be heard, Kimball said.

"They'll all come in and they'll be read," she promised.