It seems as if we only just got the telemarketer nuisance under control — unsolicited calls from insistent salespeople peddling magazine subscriptions, time shares, can’t-miss investment opportunities, mortgage refinancing and a whole cornucopia of sucker deals. Since the telemarketers wanted to call when most people would be at home, they often called at dinnertime. Telemarketing became synonymous with “really irritating.”
State and federal regulations curtailed some of the telemarketers’ more egregious practices and, over their objections, the Federal Trade Commission created the Do Not Call Registry. Although there are loopholes, telemarketing is now within the range of being an acceptable annoyance. Cost became a factor and telemarketers began outsourcing their business to overseas boiler rooms. Cheaper still was robocalling, automatic dialing with prerecorded messages.
Except that in the meantime, the communications world had changed. Fewer and fewer people were dependent on landlines, and more and more began relying exclusively on their cellphones. Robocalling was not a problem with cellphones because federal law basically prohibited calls in which, as in most cellphone plans, the called party is charged for the call.
But that period of relative peace may be short-lived. President Barack Obama’s deficit-reduction plan has an obscure provision exempting debt-collection agencies from the ban on cellphone calls if the companies are trying to collect money owed to the federal government.
For the feds, it’s an attractive proposition. This past year, three departments — Treasury, Education, and Health and Human Services — have turned over $35.9 billion in outstanding debts to private collection agencies. The agencies get to keep 17.5 percent of whatever they recover, and the process would be a lot easier if the agencies could robodial cellphones.
Congress should send this idea back to the drawing board. Landline calls disturb only the recipient. Cellphone calls disturb everybody in the vicinity. The Federal Aviation Administration is reconsidering its ban on cellphone calls aboard airliners. It’s bad enough that passengers are forced to endure such cellphone bulletins as “We’ve just landed,” “We’re approaching the gate” and “They’ve just opened the cabin doors” without having to overhear the details of your seatmate’s overdue student loan.
If it is that delinquent student loan they’re calling about, you pay for the call. And with almost 18 percent of $35.9 billion up for grabs, it shouldn’t take long for some of the more unscrupulous collections agencies, already the subject of more complaints to the Federal Trade Commission than any other industry, to revert to their more aggressive tactics.
If there is one exemption made, even for the noble cause of retrieving Uncle Sam’s money, there will be demands for more. Our bet for the first one is an exemption for robopitches for political candidates.