ANNAPOLIS – Blocking telephone numbers from display on caller identification systems would be forbidden under two bills in the Maryland General Assembly this session.
The measures are designed to expose telephone marketers who often block their numbers for sales calls.
Sen. Leo E. Green, D-Prince George’s, submitted a sweeping bill that prohibits telephone solicitors from blocking telephone numbers on caller ID, a device that lists the names and telephone numbers of incoming callers.
His bill would fine first-time offenders $1,000 and repeat-violators $5,000, and it would require businesses upgrade technology that fails to transmit phone numbers.
The bill would exempt government agencies and businesses with an existing relationship with the customer. It may be amended to include warnings for offenders unaware of the law and provisions for small businesses.
Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, has submitted a narrower bill that bars telephone companies from allowing commercial businesses to hide their phone number on the caller ID device. Telephone companies are protesting the measure.
The legislation joins another bill to form a three-pronged attack on telephone marketing in the state this session.
Sen. Jean W. Roesser, R-Montgomery, and 10 others, have proposed a bill to create a statewide “no call” list and prohibit telephone marketers from calling anyone on it.
Consumer rights activists are rooting for all the bills.
“This is a really good step – people ought to know who is calling them,” said Stephen D. Hannan, an officer of the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs. Although telemarketing is legal, he said, it is also intrusive.
Indeed, it has been the “hottest” consumer issue since the early 1990’s, he said. Consumers spend $40 billion on telemarketing fraud each year, according to Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
The National Consumers League supports consumer privacy and protection from unwanted commercial solicitation, and doesn’t see why businesses would have a problem with complying, said Susan Grant, an officer with the organization.
Green’s bill complements a 1991 federal statute that requires businesses to honor customer requests not to be called again. Calling a no-call customer twice more within a year can spawn a lawsuit and penalty of as much as $500 per call.
“That way we can hit (telephone marketers) with a left and a right hand punch,” said Green, speaking of both state and federal measures.
Fifteen states prevent businesses from blocking their telephone numbers.
Sen. J. Robert Hooper, R-Harford, a co-sponsor of Roesser’s bill, said his wife rejects about 10 calls a day because the numbers are blocked.
“I think this has got completely out of hand,” Hooper said. He noted Green and Roesser’s bills are the subjects of most of his constituents’ calls. Green’s bill would require businesses upgrade to a product that freely transmits telephone numbers to caller ID devices. Some businesses buy equipment that stops telephone number transmission, while others still use older systems that can’t carry the number across state lines, he said.
He said he would amend his bill to fine only those businesses that intentionally block numbers.
Bobo, meanwhile, hails her bill as “a step to give people more control over what calls they take, and to deal with the ever-increasing volume of these unwanted calls.”
Her proposal exempts domestic violence and battered women victim services and permits blocked numbers if the called party consents. Violators would also face fines of up to $1,000 for first offenses and $5,000 for subsequent offenses.
Telephone companies argue Bobo’s bill is unfair and ineffective.
Bell Atlantic offers businesses a service allowing them to block their phone number by dialing “*60” before the number. Telephone marketers, who call thousands of people a day, are not likely to use that labor-intensive service, said Sean Looney, spokesman for Bell Atlantic Maryland.
“We are very sympathetic to how annoying unwanted calls are, but we just want legislation to solve the problem, not create more problems,” he said. “We just don’t think government should be telling businesses what kind of equipment to buy when the caller has the ultimate decision to answer the phone.” But many legislators’ conviction is that the bills are for consumers, not for businesses. These bills are consumer protection bills, and any business that threatens to leave the state instead of comply, said Sen. Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George’s, is a “shady business and I’d want them to leave.”