WASHINGTON – The Federal Trade Commission got 6,157 complaints last year from Maryland residents who said they were still being called by telemarketers despite having signed up on the national Do-Not-Call Registry.
The Maryland calls were among the 150,409 complaints the FTC said it received from October, when the registry took effect, through December, the last month for which numbers have been released.
Despite the numbers, however, FTC officials consider the number of complaints exceptionally low when compared to the 55 million people who registered their phone numbers. In Maryland, there are 1.3 million numbers registered.
“The Do Not Call program has been highly successful in protecting consumers’ privacy,” said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris in a prepared statement.
The list did not block all calls: A Jan. 19-28 survey by Harris Interactive found only 25 percent of the people polled said they had not received any telemarketing calls since joining the registry. Another 53 percent said they were getting far fewer calls than before and 14 percent were getting little less.
Still, the survey found that most people on the list were happy with the way it had worked.
The list took effect Oct. 11. It prohibited most telemarketers from calling the phone numbers registered: Political organizations, charities and pollsters can still call, as well as businesses with which a consumer had a relationship in the previous 18 months.
Telemarketers who do not comply could be fined with up to $11,000 per call.
But not all the complaints will be investigated. FTC spokeswoman Jen Schwartzman said the commission is analyzing the complaints it receives and will only open formal investigations of the most-frequently mentioned companies.
She noted some people have already reported getting multiple calls from the same companies: About 45 companies have received more than 100 complaints each.
Muris’ statement said the commission will be “taking a hard look at top violators.”
But Schwartzman noted that only about one-third of the complainants nationally were able to provide company names.
Despite those glitches, consumer groups agreed with the FTC that the registry appears to be working well.
Maryland Public Interest Research Group spokesman Brad Heavner said it is understandable that the registry might take some time to become completely effective and MaryPIRG supports the fact that the FTC is “tackling the first violators first.”
Susan Grant, director of the National Fraud Information Center of the National Consumers League, said the system to process the complaints can be improved. But even if the complaints are not all formally investigated, she said, there is still a benefit: The complaints database will show thousands of cases and patterns to help track violators.
She said the worst violators are likely the companies that are involved in more serious schemes, like credit card scams, fake prize offers, work-at-home deals, tricky travel plans and others. While such companies are probably not worried about the do-not-call penalties — if caught, they would face much more serious fraud charges — the registry could still help catch them.
Schwartzman agreed that the complaints database could help haul in other telemarketing scammers.
“Compliance comes from the companies that want to remain in business,” she said. “A lot of the cases have to do with fraudulent companies that use telemarketing and the database will give more information about them.”
Grant said there is “another value to the registry. If people get a call they shouldn’t, that’s another clue that maybe this is not the company they say.”
The FTC said Maryland ranked ninth among states for the number of complaints. California and Florida had the most complaints, with 22,584 and 17,945 respectively, while states like North Dakota had just 72 cases.
To improve enforcement in Maryland, the General Assembly is studying a bill that would allow the state to create its own registry.
“It would give the state attorney general authority to proceed in these cases, it enhances the possibility of prosecution,” said David Brewster, an aide to state Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, the sponsor of the bill. Brewster said the bill would also allow private actions by individuals against companies.
To get those companies is hard, though. Grant said some operate overseas. Because they ultimately want to get payments from their victims, however, there are ways to find them.
“We recognize that there will be certain number (of telemarketers) that will continue and ignore the rules. If they’re caught, they’ll only have additional penalties,” Grant said.
-30- CNS 03-12-04