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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Put the telemarketers on hold

By David Shapiro

Our country is divided over the international war on terrorism, but we've mustered extraordinary national unity against a sinister domestic terror — telemarketing phone calls and e-mailed spam.

Americans posted more than 50 million numbers on a "do-not-call" list set up by the Federal Trade Commission to rid us of 80 percent of solicitation calls by assessing stiff fines against marketers who ignore our wishes for peace and quiet.

Public distress over an Oklahoma court ruling that the FTC lacked authority to enforce the list moved Congress to act with rare speed and unanimity to clarify the FTC's power.

Then a second federal judge in Colorado frustrated consumer relief by ruling that the telemarketing crackdown violates the free-speech rights of marketers.

Come on, this isn't free speech, it's home invasion.

The worst intrusions are the equivalent of leaving flaming bags of doggie-doo on our porches.

The problem is that Congress targeted only commercial telemarketers, exempting charities, media pollsters and, of course, politicians. The law won't likely clear court review until lawmakers treat all annoying phone solicitations equally.

At least telemarketers have to observe some rules of decency. They're easily traced, and it costs money to run their boiler rooms.

Internet spammers, on the other hand, operate like guerrilla bombers, with few costs and relative anonymity as they assault our in-boxes with distasteful and fraudulent pitches for sexual aids, prescription medications, stock tips, contest scams, African business schemes and photos of women who claim to perform acts once only seen in the sleaziest bars near certain overseas military bases.

Spammers are creative and unscrupulous in battling attempts to control them. They've shut down leading anti-spam Web sites with brazen computerized attacks.

California has a new law that bans unsolicited commercial e-mail and imposes fines of as much as $1 million per violation. But it remains to be seen if the law will pass legal muster, and if it does, whether the state will succeed in identifying and prosecuting violators.

In the meantime, California had better put some extra security on state computers.

Tough laws and new filtering technologies are important weapons in keeping these invaders out of our homes. But laws always have loopholes, and technology always seems to favor the bad guys.

In the end, we have to protect ourselves.

We can hit these operators where it hurts by never buying, donating or giving information to any telemarketer or spammer. Ever. They operate at such low cost that if even a tiny fraction of the people they contact respond, it can be hugely rewarding.

They thrive because some people really are gullible enough to invest in Nigerian banking scams, order dangerous medications without medical exams and fall for ludicrous promises to grow hair and enhance body parts.

Fight back by firmly telling all telemarketers that you don't accept telephone solicitations, period.

Refuse to discuss it beyond that. Over time, it will reduce calls.

Never fall for a sob story over the telephone or Internet, and bite your tongue even if they're selling something you need or collecting for a charity you support. There can be no exceptions if you don't want to be the fuel that keeps the phone lines burning.

They'll feel your pain. In my profession, media pollsters are finding it increasingly difficult to get scientifically valid samples because so many people are refusing to take their calls.

The only survey pollsters can be sure of any more is the one that says 100 percent of us want to be left to our peaceful dinners.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.