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A Review of Robocall Rules

Consumers have more power, here’s how to comply.

Robert Lerose By Robert Lerose
04/14/2010 -08:56 AM

Beginning on September 1, 2009, it became more complicated to make prerecorded telemarketing messages, popularly known as robocalls.

“American consumers have made it crystal clear that few things annoy them more than the billions of commercial telemarketing robocalls they receive every year,” said Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. “This bombardment of prerecorded pitches, senseless solicitations, and malicious marketing will be illegal. If consumers think they’re being harassed by robocallers, they need to let us know, and we will go after them.”

The new rules amend the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) announced in 2008.

The overarching effect of these changes puts more power in the hands of consumers. Unless the consumer gives their permission to receive robocalls, sellers are prohibited from making them. Permission must be in writing.

The rules cover a variety of circumstances. In a bit of a backward step, telemarketers must get permission from the consumer whether or not they’ve done business with them in the past.

Consumers have the right to refuse to give their permission, of course.

However, if consumers do allow the calls, the telemarketer has several ways to obtain their permission. In addition to getting the consumer to sign a piece of paper, they can also respond to an email, press a keypad prompt during a live call with a sales agent, or reply on a company website.

Consumers also have the right to identify at which number they prefer to receive these calls.  

Not all robocalls are affected. There are exceptions.

Prerecorded messages of a purely “informational” nature are exempt from the prohibition. For example: Calls that notify consumers that their flight has been cancelled, that their child’s school opening is delayed, or that they have a service appointment will still be permitted. Since calls of this type don’t try to sell the consumer any goods or services, they fall outside the TSR’s ban.

By the same token, the new prohibition does not apply to debt collection calls, so long as the caller doesn’t try to sell or promote anything.

Does this mean you’ll never get another phone call from a candidate running for office? Dream on.

Calls from politicians are also exempt, as are calls from charities, banks, telephone carriers, and certain healthcare providers. And you can still expect to get a robocall from your local pharmacy reminding you to refill your prescription.

The FTC has promised to be vigilant in policing the ban. Lawbreakers can find themselves on the receiving end of a stiff fine:  penalties of up to $16,000 per call will be levied on those who don’t comply.

For those hearty telemarketers who want to invest the time and effort in doing robocalling by the book, the amendment lays out specific compliance metrics. For the most part, they’re meant to empower consumers and give them a variety of ways to opt-out. For example:

• Every prerecorded call must allow the consumer’s telephone to ring for a minimum of 15 seconds or four rings before an unanswered call is disconnected.

• If a consumer answers, the prerecorded message must begin within two seconds of the greeting.

• Telemarketers must alert consumers at the beginning of the message that they have the right to be placed on the company’s do-not-call list at any time during the message.

• If the phone is answered by a person instead of a machine, the telemarketer must have an automated opt-out system in place that can be activated at any time during the message. The consumer should be able to opt-out by using an automated interactive voice and/or a key-press activated mechanism. Once the consumer is automatically placed on the company’s do-not-call list, the call must end immediately.

• In cases where the consumer’s phone is answered by a machine or by voice mail, the telemarketer must leave a toll-free number where the consumer can be connected to an opt-out system as described above.

In addition to these new amendments, telemarketers must continue to comply with all other existing TSR requirements, and federal and state laws.

One bright spot of news for telemarketers:  The new rules do not cover calls from that classic marketing channel—live operators!

Robert Lerose is an independent copywriter and marketing consultant with 25 years of experience serving business-to-business and consumer markets.

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