Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terre Haute Tribune-Star op-ed on saving Do Not Call

Monday's editions of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star contained this column by Mark Bennett discussing the fight to save Do Not Call:

Indiana officials fight to protect state's no-call law

Mark Bennett

Maybe if Hoosiers threaten to answer the phone as Tom Mabe does, the FCC won't remove the deadbolt Indiana put on its door to a world of telemarketers.

A banking group doesn't like the strict no-call law this state adopted three years ago. So the Consumers Banking Association wants the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt Indiana's Telephone Privacy Law and force the state to instead abide by a weaker national no-call law.

These banks' rationale? Indiana's law prohibits telemarketing calls to people and businesses "with which the caller has an established relationship," the national law will actually protect consumers, and, well, it's just easier for banks to deal with one single federal guideline instead of maybe 50 different state no-call statutes.

Hello. This is Indiana. Like it or not, we don't change our clocks here, and we don't want to stop watching "CSI" or the IU-Purdue game to hear about a 7-cents-a-minute long-distance bargain. And loopholes in this national no-call law would reopen our phone lines to a gamut of telemarketing.

Last week, the two guys who represent Indiana in the U.S. Senate - Evan Bayh, a Democrat, and Richard Lugar, a Republican - sent that message (without the references to CSI and basketball) to outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell. And eight of the state's nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives - from both political parties - expressed their opposition to the banks' requested change. Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter is fighting to protect Indiana's no-call law. And 1.6 million households in our state - basically 60 percent of the Hoosier population - signed up to not be called.

Let's see. That's both senators, almost all of our congressmen, right-wingers and left-wingers, the attorney general, and a majority of our residents Š

Can you hear us now?

As Bayh put it in the senators' letter to the FCC, "Hoosiers have demonstrated overwhelming support for our state's do-not-call law and have a right to the protection it offers. Federal law should not be used to water down our consumer rights for the benefit of telemarketers."

Indiana Congressman Steve Buyer said in a teleconference with Carter and the media on Wednesday, "I think Indiana's privacy law is one of the strongest and most popular in the nation."

Mabe, a commercial jingle writer from Kentucky whose "Revenge of the Telemarketers" routine has been featured on radio's "Bob and Tom Show," was impressed when he heard the Indiana law's tight limitations. The only exemptions in our no-call law are for real estate and insurance agents, newspapers and charities who use their own employees to make the calls. Companies servicing problems with an existing account or collecting on an existing debt can call you too.

But if we're forced to live under the national no-call law, any company we do business with - from the phone company to banks to credit card firms - will be able to telemarket us for 18 months. And then, if we do any other kind of business with those companies - like write a check or buy something on a credit card - that 18-month clock starts again.

"It's a perpetual exemption, basically," said Staci Schneider of the attorney general's office.

That weaker national no-call law should be considered a "minimum standard," Buyer said Wednesday, and states should be allowed to impose stricter laws if they choose.

The banking group, Carter said, insists that under the national no-call law, all the person answering the calls has to say is, "Don't call again," and they won't. "But that's not going to do anything to protect you against the other 999 or 998 telemarketing calls you're going to get over the next year and a half," Carter explained.

Besides, Indiana's law already allows a consumer to, on their own, permit a company to telemarket them.

It's doubtful Mabe would ever be one of those folks. He's been "messing with" telemarketers ever since 1996, when a guy calling for a charity used the same routine - "Boy, it's good to hear a friendly voice on the other end of this line" - on Mabe twice in just six months. He went for it the first time and gave $30. The next time, he felt duped.

Since then, he's put out a series of humor CDs - "Revenge on the Telemarketers Round One," "A Wakeup Call for Telemarketers" and "Revenge on the Telemarketers Round Two" - and maintains a Web site (www.tommabe.com) that includes some interesting statistics on the topic.

"I just got tired of being victimized by these guys," Mabe said. "And being self-employed, when the phone rings, you just jump."

When I reached Mabe for this interview, he was on his cell phone en route to picking up one of his kids from school. Having heard some of his bits beforehand, I wondered if I was headed for a comical set-up. But he was cool and serious, in a lighthearted way.

And what Mabe does is "mess with" a telemarketer when they call his home. Take the people trying to sell him pre-paid burial plots. They called one night while Mabe and his family were eating dinner. Mabe politely told him to call at a better time. And the next night at dinner time, that burial-plot company calls again. Mabe was ready.

In a stressful voice, Mabe said, "Oh, man. I can't believe you called now. I've been contemplating suicide, and I've been asking God to give me some kind of sign. You must be the angel of death."

OK, that's pretty extreme. But with the average American, according to Mabe, getting two to three telemarketing calls a day, your fuse gets short. Like when the carpet-cleaning telemarketing call came into his home.

"I can't believe you called. Can you guys get blood out of a carpet?" Mabe groans to the caller, who gives a hesitant yes. Then he tells them, "I've got blood all over the place," from the couch to the drapes. And when the caller offers to phone the police, Mabe says, "No, no. God, no," before explaining he must have cut himself shaving.

"The real cops showed up at my house after that one," Mabe remembered. One of the two officers wasn't sympathetic when Mabe explained his retaliation on the telemarketers, and the policeman almost cited him for public mischief. "And I said, 'What? I'm in my own house.' But by the time they left, he was saying, 'Yeah, I hate those sons of -----es too.'"

Of course, we Hoosiers can continue avoiding all of that if the FCC rejects the CBA petition, which - according to the attorney general's office - has since been disavowed by three of original 10 banks supporting it. That decision could come at any time, and it's unclear what effect the chairmanship change from Powell to Kevin Martin, who took over Friday, will have. "We really wouldn't talk about an open issue," said FCC spokesperson Janice Wise.

In the meantime, Hoosiers can still get tidbits about the situation at the SaveDoNoCall.com Web site. But just in case the FCC decides to pre-empt our no-call law, it might be a good idea to bookmark www.tommabe.com, too.