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Bill aims to disconnect telephone solicitors; State would maintain a do-not-call list

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maria DiGiovanni is sick and tired of dashing upstairs from her basement to answer the telephone, only to get a sales pitch for something she doesn't want.

From midmorning through dinner time, the phone rings, tearing the 39-year-old Mount Airy woman away from her two young children and her gardening. Callers offer her credit cards she already has, insurance she doesn't need or a sure-fire remedy for a wet basement that isn't.

Not everyone is willing to take no for an answer. "I had one get real nasty and hang up," she said last week.

Lawmakers in Annapolis, many of them bothered by the same telemarketers, are considering a legislative shield against the unwanted calls that have transformed Alexander Graham Bell's marvelous invention into an instrument of torture in many households.

A Senate hearing is scheduled for Tuesday on a bill that would let residents put their home numbers on a state-maintained do-not-call list. Any for-profit company or person trying to sell goods or services over the phone would have to steer clear of the listed households or face a possible penalty of up to $1,000 per offending call.

"We're hearing from a lot of people that they are being constantly interrupted by the phone ringing in their homes and telephone solicitors are on the line," said Sen. Jean W. Roesser, a Montgomery County Republican who is the bill's chief sponsor. "People would like somehow to get a handle on this."

Her bill alarms businesses that depend on phone sales, from AT&T; and MCI-WorldCom to fitness clubs and newspapers and small, family-owned jewelry stores. Their lobbyists are burning up the phone and fax lines in an effort to block the bill, just as they have previous attempts by Maryland legislators to regulate telemarketing.

A couple of businesses have threatened to move jobs out of the state if the legislation passes.

"If it becomes more difficult for us to do business in Maryland, that could mean good things for Virginia," said Elena French, an MCI spokeswoman. The long-distance company, which hopes to begin selling local phone service soon -- by phone -- has about 1,000 employees at its regional telemarketing center in Hunt Valley.

Bally Total Fitness Corp., a health club chain, has warned that it will consider moving its nationwide telemarketing operation -- with 600 jobs based in Towson -- out of the state if the bill is passed.

Widespread backlash

Roesser's bill and a handful of related measures are part of a nationwide backlash against telemarketing, from the Sunday morning calls to the irritating hang-ups just as the caller picks up the phone. Fed-up sales "prospects" are demanding some control over who calls them at their homes.

"The worst is the prerecorded tape," said Mark Lampe, a 46-year-old accountant who works out of his apartment in Lutherville. "I had one Sunday night. It told me I'd won who knows what, and I needed to call some number. It was $4.95 to complete the call. That's really beautiful."

Eight states have do-not-call lists or require that phone directories carry black dots beside the listings of residents who don't want to receive telephone solicitations. Seven other states, including Delaware and Pennsylvania, have similar legislation pending.

Roesser's bill is modeled on a Georgia law, which in its first year has 173,000 names on a state-run do-not-call list. There have been 3,000 violations reported. The state has hit a home-improvement company for $20,000 in penalties and a lawn service for $45,000.

"I used to get six or eight calls every week. Now, I've gotten one in six months," said William Bennett, vice president of Computer Business Services, the Americus, Ga., company that has a contract to maintain the list for that state.

Companies that use telemarketing contend that such state regulation is unnecessary. They note that a 1991 federal law requires every company doing telephone sales to maintain a do-not-call list. Consumers who ask to be left alone and keep getting bothered can sue in state courts and collect up to $500 per offending call.

"All they have to do is get on the no-call list," said Ross Baker, a lobbyist for AT&T;, which hires outside contractors to do much of its telemarketing.

The federal law helps cut down on unwanted sales calls, but getting it enforced is time-consuming, says Barbara Joyce, a volunteer with Montgomery County's consumer affairs office. She figures she has collected more than $8,000 from 11 companies that telephoned her after she invoked the federal law and told them to put her on their lists.

Most people don't want to go to the trouble of suing to stop telemarketers, she noted.

Free service

Pat McHenry, a lobbyist for the Direct Marketing Association, says the New York-based industry group offers a free service to consumers who do not want to get telephone solicitations.

About 4,800 businesses nationwide belong to the association and voluntarily heed written requests from people to be left alone, he said. The only penalty for ignoring consumers' requests is to be kicked out of the association.

"It really works," McHenry said, though he added, "You don't bat a thousand with any list."

Other businesses contend that the bill would unfairly restrict their efforts to attract new or repeat customers.

MCI objects to the exemptions provided in the bill for sales pitches from companies that have an established relationship with a consumer. MCI spokesmen contend that would give Bell Atlantic an unfair advantage in the cutthroat telecommunications industry. As the sole provider until now of local phone service, Bell would be free to contact people on the state's do-not-call list because it has an established relationship with them.

Bell Atlantic, which opposed previous legislative attempts to limit telemarketing, is neutral on Roesser's bill for that reason, says lobbyist Sean Looney.

Alvin Levi, owner of Howard Street Jewelers in Baltimore, says he is worried that the legislation could prevent him from calling previous customers with reminders that a spouse's anniversary or birthday is coming up.

Under the bill, people on the list could be called if they had bought something from that business within the previous six months, but Levi notes that many people buy jewelry only every year or so.

Many newspapers, including The Sun, use telemarketing to attract subscribers. The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association faxed an alert to state newspapers last week urging them to join the lobbying battle against the bill.

Roesser says her bill provides that any company can get around the calling prohibition by getting consumers to indicate their willingness to be contacted. She said she would like to give consumers relief from nonprofit groups, too, but that court rulings exempt them from restrictions.

"The big people that engage in telemarketing are not real happy about this bill," she says, but she sees the measure as helpful to telemarketers. "In a way you can look at it as getting a more efficient list of who to call."

Prospects for the bill are uncertain. A majority of the members of the Senate Finance Committee are co-sponsors, but its chairman, Thomas L. Bromwell, says he worries that it might hurt Maryland businesses.

"I'm concerned about driving people out of Maryland," the Baltimore County Democrat said last week. "It's very easy to go across the Potomac River and set up in Virginia."

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. calls Roesser's bill "a good idea." His office would be responsible for enforcing violations of the do-not-call list and says it would need six additional people to do so. It might be harder to track down out-of-state telemarketers, Curran said, but those businesses could still be penalized if they violated a Maryland law.

On one issue, supporters and opponents of the bill agree.

"Telemarketing, like the poor, will always be with us," said AT&T;'s Baker. "And it's one way that the poor can actually enrich themselves."

Maria DiGiovanni is a former telemarketer herself. She recalled that after she graduated from high school, she called homes offering photography packages for Olan Mills, a national studio.

"I really felt I was offering a good deal," she says. "If someone called me on that [now], I'd probably take them up on it."

What you can do now

Maryland consumers have some weapons if they want to fend off telemarketers.

Under a 1991 federal law, companies doing telephone sales must honor your request not to be called again. When you get a call, simply state that you want to be added to their do-not-call list. They should not bother you for 10 years.

You can sue in state courts if the company makes two more calls within 12 months of your request not to be on its list. The penalty is $500 per violation.

Federal law requires telemarketers to give you their name, the business they represent and a telephone number or address for their firm. Federal rules prohibit sales calls to your home before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., and they bar the use of computerized or pre-recorded pitches. If a company violates those rules, you can sue.

The federal law applies only to commercial telemarketing. Charities and politicians are exempt from any limitations. Courts have ruled they have a constitutional right to call to ask for your money or your vote.

Maryland law prohibits the use of automated dialing systems with pre-recorded messages to sell anything, offer you a prize or conduct a poll. Violators can be fined up to $1,000 for the first offense or up to $5,000 for repeats.

The Direct Marketing Association, a sales industry group, maintains a list of people who do not want to be called, which it shares with its 4,000 member companies. Write to: Telephone Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9014, Farmingdale, N.Y. 11735-9014.

Include your name, address, telephone number and signature. Keep in mind that many businesses do not belong to the group, and the only punishment for ignoring the list is to be kicked out of the association.

Assembly hearings

The Sun is offering free fax delivery of Maryland General Assembly hearing schedules again this year. To use this service, you must have a fax machine capable of answering the phone automatically.

To subscribe to the service, call SunDial at 410-783-1800 and enter Code 6290. You'll be asked to leave your name, fax number and a daytime phone number. If you subscribed to the service last year, you must subscribe again this year to receive the schedules.

For a list of SunDial numbers in surrounding counties, see Page 2B.

Hearing schedules for the next week will be faxed every Friday night.

If you have an Internet connection, updated schedules are available every day on the General Assembly's Web site. Point your Web browser to http: //mlis.state.md.us.

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