Telemarketers could face new Telephonic Solicitation Act

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Published: February 25,2002

Annoying. Aggravating. Pests. Thorns in the flesh. When the word “telemarketing” is spoken, usually these are the feelings associated with it. But no matter how aggravating, telemarketing can be a lucrative tool.

Healthcare Financial Services, LLC (HFS) and Horizons Billing Services (HBS) in Jackson, although mainly a billing and financing company, have employees who could be called telemarketers, said president Dick Williams. That term, however, is one Williams prefers his employees not be called.

“The word telemarketing just got off to a bad start,” Williams said. “The people who made the millions in it early on stirred the pot for a lot of people. That’s why I prefer the word ‘telecommunications’ or ‘teleservices’ because I think they more accurately describe what’s being done out there.”

Williams is referring to the many tasks that can be accomplished with the help of the telephone.

“I think all the people in my industry realize there are other things we can get into,” Williams said. “I have a friend in San Jose, Calif., who has a database of numbers. He has the ability to, within an hour’s time, call everyone in a zip code to make them aware a child has been abducted. What if those people were on a do not call list?”

Williams, for one, has allowed the surplus capacity of his company’s phones and technology to be used by a number of nonprofits, such as the Heart Association, the Red Cross and United Blood Services.

“We think it’s our civic duty to assist them if we can,” Williams said. “I’ve done it where basically I can get reimbursed for my cost.”

Williams can also “sell” his surplus telephone services to companies that wish to market products or services using a phone system.

“Most people — and I think this is true for most small businesses — have never realized the power you can achieve with a good telemarketing campaign,” Williams said. “I like it when people follow up with me. That’s what telecommunications is: service and sale. That’s how businesses grow and prosper.”

Most businesses cannot afford a telemarketing campaign because of the cost of the technology. For Williams, however, it is well worth the cost. A database of thousands of numbers can be built using the equipment and auto dialers, which give HBS and HFS employees the ability to make several calls at once.

Williams’ companies can also opt for live connections or other types of connections, although his companies use live connections. While 10 people may be called, only the person who is first to pick up the phone will actually get the call. The other nine callers are dropped, and then put back on a calling list and may be called again after a certain period of time. Calls can be timed to allow only one call every eight hours.

Williams is upset that his telecommunications company’s rights are being infringed upon due to legislation that is pending approval.

Mississippi Senate Bill No. 2296, which has already passed the Senate, contains the Mississippi Telephonic Solicitation Act that would prohibit telephone solicitations to residential subscribers who have given notice of their objection to such calls to the Public Service Commission (PSC).

The bill provides some exemptions, and would require the PSC to establish a database to collect such objections, to restrict the use of information contained in the database, and would require all telephone solicitors to register with the PSC prior to conducting solicitation via the telephone. Also, the bill would authorize the PSC to enact rules necessary to accomplish the act. In addition, the act would provide civil penalties for violations of the act and for related purposes.

While this may be all right for some telecommunications companies, Williams does not believe the legislation is right for all.

“You have your credit card, and they sell your name to XYZ, who calls all credit card customers and says they can get a 25% discount for a cruise, etc.,” Williams said. “That becomes more of an annoyance type thing. A lot of that I consider cold calling because you may not have a direct relationship with a cruise company and your credit card company has sold that database. I like mine to be more customized and I stay away from cold calling. I prefer to have an established relationship with the customer I’m calling.”

Williams compared residents’ telephones to mailboxes. “Give me a break,” he said. “Two-thirds of my mail I throw away, but I can’t stop it from coming into my mailbox. I think most reputable people want to do the right thing the right way. But the problem is those who want to abuse it. I think this selling of phone lists and names should stay within the individual entity.”

If everyone were in telemarketing, as Williams put it, “the way people think of it now,” he probably would not be in the business.

“But if I can find people with a certain blood type to donate blood or build a new wing on a hospital, those are good causes,” he said. “There are a lot of good things and unfortunately some of those will get penalized.”

Williams said he does not need more government to tell him to run his business properly. “But then again I don’t get all the votes,” he said.

“Our industry is just about as clean as any. Those few that abuse telemarketing, they’re going to get hammered. I think we leave it to the marketplace to take care of most of it.”

Expetel Communications, a Flowood-based telephone company, is one such company in the marketplace that faces possible penalties as a result of its alleged actions. On March 5, the Mississippi Public Service Commission will either dismiss the charges that allege Expetel deceived customers by telling them it could bill for BellSouth services at a 20% discount, fine the company or bar Expetel from providing local and long distance calling services. The company was granted a license to provide those services in October.

Mike Rhodes, director of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, said telephone fraud “was and is widespread.” But the Mississippi Code has enabled state officials to prosecute fraudulent telemarketers. Mississippi’s statutory law that requires telephone solicitors to be registered with the Attorney General’s office, called the Unsolicited Residential Telephonic Sales Act, is found at section 77-3-601 of the Mississippi Code. According to the law, telephone solicitors who place unsolicited sales calls within the State of Mississippi must be registered and post a $75,000 bond. The penalty for not doing so is up to $10,000 per violation.

In addition, any telephone solicitor who makes an unsolicited call to a residential number is restricted on the time that he or she may call. The caller may call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. as long as the caller identifies himself by his true first and last name and makes reference to the business on whose behalf he is soliciting. And the callers must discontinue the call if at any time during the conversation the person being solicited expresses disinterest in continuing the call.

Exemptions are listed in section 77-3-609 of the Mississippi Code.

In addition to Mississippi laws, there are federal laws that govern telemarketing as well. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, as its name suggests, protects consumers, and is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. The Federal Trade Commission also enforces laws that relate to telemarketing.

Bill Moak, president and CEO of Mississippi’s Better Business Bureau, said the BBB does not see telemarketing as good or bad, per se.

“It’s a tool,” Moak said. “Just like any other tool it can be misused.&#
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Moak suggested that businesses that use telemarketing should establish policies that all calls to interested customers be followed up in writing.

“Allow the customer plenty of time to make a decision,” Moak said. “Also, you should make su

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