Hello? Goodbye.

Posted: Oct 02, 2003 12:00 AM

Attention, all telemarketers: I don’t want to hear from you. Really, I don’t.
I’m already aware that you’ve got a deal going on vinyl siding, which would look great on my house after I refinance it. And I know you can do a great job landscaping my home, which I could pay for with my pre-approved credit card. I also know I’ll save plenty of money if I change both my local phone company and my long distance carrier. But, amazingly, I’m not interested right now (at dinner time).

 Several months ago, the federal government stumbled on to a good idea: to create a list of numbers that telemarketers were not allowed to call. These would not be random numbers generated by a computer. Nor would they be purchased from another company, as most telemarketer phone lists seem to be.

To be on the list, a citizen would have to take the time to go to the Web page, www.donotcall.gov, and type in his number. Some 50 million of us did that in just three months. That’s about one third of the active numbers in the country. That should have sent a clear message to telemarketers: Don’t call us.

Instead of hanging up, the telemarketers did something much more American. They went to court.

First, a federal judge in Oklahoma ruled that Congress hadn’t intended to give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to make phone calls from telemarketers illegal. It took lawmakers about 30 seconds to correct that judge. Indeed we did give the FTC this authority, Congress said, and President Bush didn’t wait until the ink was dry on that bill before he signed it. After all, there must be at least a few voters among those 50 million Americans.
Now, a second federal judge has blocked the list, saying it violates the telemarketers’ right to free speech because it bans commercial calls, but still allows political candidates and charitable groups to place calls.

Of course all telemarketers enjoy the right to free speech. But that doesn’t mean they have the right to call me when I’ve made it clear I don’t want to hear from them. My phone is my private property; I pay dearly for it. So it’s pretty silly to claim that telemarketers have the right to use my private property to expose me to speech that I’ve made clear I don’t want to hear.

Many neighborhoods place “No Soliciting” signs up to prevent salesmen from going door to door. Does that a violate the salesmen’s right to free speech? Of course not. Well, telemarketing is nothing more than door-to-door sales using high tech equipment instead of two feet. And the do-not-call list is nothing more than a high tech “No Soliciting” sign.

In an attempt to calm things down last week, H. Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association, said his group “will honor the list the best we can.” The DMA represents about 80 percent of telemarketers, so it would eliminate millions of unwanted calls if DMA members honor the list.

Still, that’s a pretty weak statement. Honor it the best they can? If they want to, they can honor it. And they should, for sound business reasons if nothing else. After all, it doesn’t take an M.B.A. to realize that there’s no reason for a company to bother people who’ve stated publicly that they don’t want to be customers of that company.

Telemarketing companies aren’t stupid. They must be making money, or they wouldn’t still be in business. But wouldn’t it make sense for them to specifically avoid any numbers on the no-call list (customers who’ve made it clear they don’t want to hear from telemarketers) and focus their efforts on the other two thirds of the numbers? That’s where the potential customers are, anyway.

So please, telemarketers, whether the do-not-call list is legally binding or not, don’t call me. How about this: when I want siding, a new credit card, better phone service or landscaping, I’ll call you. Say, around seven tonight?