By Sue Fernandez
ANNAPOLIS – Consumers could receive fewer mystery phone calls under a bill now before the state Legislature.
The proposed law would put an end to telemarketers’ practice of using automatic dialing to call potential customers, only to have them answer to dead silence or a recording before a human voice comes on the line.
The bill, heard Wednesday before the House Environmental Matters Committee, would prohibit anyone from dialing someone without being on the line when the call is picked up.
The measure would amend the Public Service Commission law, which already bans most automatic dialing with a pre-recorded message, and requires anyone who uses automatic dialing to disconnect a pre-recorded message within 5 seconds after the person being called hangs up.
Violation of the amended law would be a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine for the first offense and fines of up to $5,000 for each additional offense.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, said she sponsored the bill after receiving telemarketers’ automatic-dialing calls at home, and after constituents complained to her.
“At a minimum it’s annoying,” she said. “People sometimes think something is wrong with their phone.”
Others think they’re getting a prank call, she said, adding, “It especially frightens senior citizens.”
Michael Travieso of the Office of the People’s Counsel, the state office that represents residential and noncommercial telephone users, said consumers have complained that they must listen to long recorded messages or a “computer voice” before they know who is on the line. Others complain that they have to dial an 800- or 900- number to identify the caller.
Bobo’s bill “would allow them to talk to someone right away to tell them they don’t want to be called again,” Travieso said in written testimony.
John B. Bowers Jr., executive vice president of the Maryland Bankers Association, spoke against the bill.
He said the burden of stopping automatic-dialing calls should be on consumers rather than telemarketing companies. Some people welcome telemarketers’ calls, he said.
“That call could get them a credit card with a 6 percent interest rate,” he said. “It may be an annoyance to some, but it’s not worth putting another impediment on the free flow of information.”
Bowers said people who don’t want telemarketers’ calls may get an unlisted phone number, contact an association that takes people off calling lists or simply hang up the phone.
But Del. Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, pointed out that an unlisted number is no defense against computer programs that simply dial sequentially.
And Del. Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, called automatic dialing an invasion of privacy.
“We’re able to limit our mail, to have a `no soliciting’ sign on our door, yet we have no ability to control our phones,” she said. -30-