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Telemarketers speed-dial to beat do-not-call deadline

Deluge of calls is expected before law takes effect

Telemarketers are an optimistic sort. They're quite certain they can call you up, drag you away from whatever you were doing and sell you something you didn't know you wanted.

So maybe it's not surprising that many say they're not worried about a new law that will fine them up to $11,000 each time they call someone listed on a federal do-not-call registry.

Some telemarketers almost give the impression that the National Do Not Call Registry, which goes into effect Oct. 1 and so far has 31.6 million phone numbers, was their idea. They say it will greatly simplify their operations by drawing a bright line between those who don't want to be called and all the others -- who, the telemarketers will assume, are downright eager to talk.

"The individuals left are more of a targeted, receptive population," said Alan Elias, a spokesman for Providian Financial Corp., a San Francisco credit card company.

Other major telemarketers say they support the registry because they believe in consumers' right to be left alone.

"This is quite in line with AT&T's long-standing policy of protecting the privacy of its customers," said Tom Hopkins, a spokesman for AT&T Corp., one of the largest US telemarketers.

If the industry seems cool and unconcerned, its lobbyists are close to panic. The American Teleservices and Direct Marketing associations have filed lawsuits to stop the registry, which they say is a violation of free speech.

They also say the registry will ruin the industry, in turn delivering a body blow to the wobbly national economy.

"It will be like an asteroid hitting the Earth," said ATA executive director Tim Searcy. "Two million people will lose their jobs."

Which group is right will begin to come clear this fall. Federal Trade Commission officials originally predicted that consumers would put 60 million phone numbers on the registry in the first year. They say registrations -- which can be done on the Web at www.donotcall.gov or by calling (888) 382-1222 -- are exceeding expectations. There are 166 million residential phones in the United States.

Telemarketers will pay to access the registry, which will be updated quarterly. Only politicians, pollsters and charities will be exempt and able to continue to make calls with impunity. Also permitted will be calls to consumers with whom the telemarketer has an existing "relationship." But even here there are limits.

"Telemarketers can't sell another product or service that is completely unrelated," said Eileen Harrington, the FTC's associate director of marketing practices. "If I'm your phone company, I can't sell you a time share."

In coming weeks, households can expect to be deluged with phone solicitations as telemarketers try to establish relationships before the registry goes into effect.

The FTC already is getting reports that telemarketing call volume has soared. And after Oct. 1, those who haven't signed up for the registry can expect a flood of calls as marketers zero in on them.

Consumers must sign up by Aug. 31 to be on the registry by Oct. 1. Those who sign up thereafter will have to wait three months before their numbers appear on the registry.

Complaints about invasions of privacy aren't officially tracked by the FTC, but the agency says they have mushroomed in recent years.

When the FTC was considering the national registry, it solicited input from the public and received more than 64,000 comments, more than in any proceeding in the agency's history. The vast majority supported the idea of a registry. One 48-year-old former telemarketer wrote that "98 percent of all products sold by [telephone sales representatives] are products that you don't need or will never use. However, we are specifically taught to harass you till either we can con you or you just get tired of hearing from us [and] you sign up anyway."

One industry that has grown up alongside telemarketing is the time share business, which sells small ownership shares in resort complexes. Grand Pacific Resorts in Carlsbad, Calif., runs two telemarketing shifts a day, with 20 representatives for each stint. They place a total of 10,000 calls a day, from which they entice about 40 people to take a tour. One person, at most, may follow through and buy.

Grand Pacific used to get its numbers of potential customers from street fairs and county fairs. The company would rent a booth and hold a sweepstakes for a new car or cash. Fair-goers would fill out an entry form to compete for the prize. A few weeks later, they would get a call from Grand Pacific inviting them to one of its eight resorts.

But the price of fair booths escalated as more companies sought to engage in similar types of marketing. So Grand Pacific began buying cold call lists from list brokers.

"It started as a little supplement, 10 percent or 20 percent of the calls," said David Surrey, Grand Pacific's call center manager. "Now 80 percent of our calls come from lists we buy. The registry is going to impact us rather severely."

Surrey is hopeful that a lawsuit will stop the registry at the last minute. And if that doesn't happen, he expects other methods -- e-mail, for example -- to blossom. "It's not like we're passing out pink slips saying, `On Oct. 1, half of you are gone.' "

Sterling Edens, who runs the 75-person call center for Welk Resort Group in San Diego, agreed that "the big bloodbath" wouldn't happen immediately. "The first run will be a good thing," he said. "It will eliminate a lot of people who just don't want to be bothered no matter what you're talking about. It prunes the tree."

But this is an industry, regulators say, that never has been good at self-restraint. So the widespread presumption is that all those not on the registry will, as Edens puts it, "get overwhelmed with every type of telemarketing call imaginable."

That will drive more people onto the list. Which in turn will increase the volume of calls to the dwindling number who aren't on it.

But for the next few weeks, it's open season. Dozens of people report to the FTC every day that telemarketing calls to their numbers have tripled or quadrupled. Some wonder whether telemarketers have somehow hacked into the do-not-call registry and are purposely calling numbers on the list.

A spokesman for AT&T, which administers the registry for the government, said the hacking allegations were "not true."

If this industry is fated to disappear, the telemarketing association says, it will go down dialing. "Until every man, woman and child in the United States signs up for a do-not-call list," the ATA's Searcy said, "the opportunity still exists."

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