Monday, March 07, 2005

Op-ed on the fight to save Do Not Call

Fort Wayne News-Sentinel business writer Linda Lipp has a column on the fight to save Indiana's Do Not Call list in the paper's March 7 editions:

Indiana’s do-not-call law has to be one of the most popular statutes this state has enacted in decades.

About 1.6 million Hoosier households — upwards of 3 million people — have given it a ringing (no pun intended) endorsement by adding their phone numbers to the list since it took effect in 2002. I’ll admit right up front that I’m one of them.

Indiana’s law may in fact be the toughest in the nation, a bit of irony in a business-friendly state not exactly known for aggressive consumer protection.

But Indiana’s law is under attack from the Consumer Bankers Association, which wants the Federal Communications Commission to issue a ruling pre-empting the provision in the Indiana statute that prohibits calls to customers with whom a business has had a relationship in the previous 18 months.

The association also has asked the FCC to determine whether the less restrictive standards of the federal do-not-call rule, which took effect in October 2003, supersede provisions of do-not-call laws in Indiana, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

“We simply want one set of consumer protection rules, rather than rules in different states,” CBA President Joe Belew said in a prepared statement.

“I find that argument rather disingenuous,” Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter said last week. “There are numerous other laws and regulations they comply with that vary from state to state. Technology makes that easy to do.”

The CBA also has argued that all the names and numbers on the Indiana do-not-call list have been incorporated into the federal list — making the state’s program unnecessary. While that is true with many states that had do-not-call programs, it is not the case with Indiana.

The legislation that created Indiana’s do-not-call list actually prohibits that from being done, Carter said. It would take another act of the General Assembly for the Indiana names to be transferred to the federal list.

Meanwhile, if Indiana’s program were thrown out, individuals would be hearing bells — or at least ring tones — unless they hurry to sign up for the federal program. And even then, they still would be subject to calls from any company with which they had done business in the past 18 months, because those calls are permitted under the federal rule. The only way to stop those calls would be to call each and every company and ask to be placed on its no-call list.

“We want to be able to call our current customers, unless they ask us not to,” read a statement from Bank One. “Any customer of ours in any state who does not wish to receive telephone calls from us about our products and services may contact us…and ask to be placed on our own do-not-call list.”

That procedure is known as an “opt out” because it requires the consumer to make the effort to say, “no thanks.” Indiana’s law contains the more consumer-friendly “opt in,” which requires the business to take the initiative to ask the consumer if he or she would mind being called.

Banks and other businesses have had three years since Indiana’s law took effect to make those requests, so it’s no fault but their own if they haven’t made the effort, the attorney general said.

Carter launched a “Save Do Not Call” campaign in February to urge consumers to contact the FCC, and their banks, to tell them they want Indiana’s law preserved. He’s taken some heat from newspaper editorialists — including The News-Sentinel’s — for spending public funds on the effort.

But Carter said he also has gotten thank-you notes from Hoosiers who were glad he had alerted them to the situation. And if a strong response from the public persuades the FCC to leave Indiana’s law alone, or gets the banks to back down on their request, it could save Indiana the costs of a legal battle to appeal a negative FCC decision, he said.

Three banks — Integra, Old National and Union Federal — already have dropped their support of the CBA’s petition and/or their membership in the organization. Banks still urging the FCC on include Bank One/J.P. Morgan Chase, Fifth Third, National City, Wells Fargo and others.

“I think it would be smart” if they withdraw their support of the petition, Carter said. “They are going to continue to annoy their own customers. If they persist, people are going to move their accounts.”

The official period for public comment to the FCC has ended, but Carter said that should not stop people from contacting the federal agency or their banks.

There is no way of knowing how long it will take the FCC to make a decision, and every voice heard now may mean an annoying sales call prevented later.

For information on the Save Do Not Call campaign and how to contact banks, the CBA and the FCC, visit savedonotcall .com.