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Do Not Call List Enforcement Receives No Answer

Complaints skyrocket and agency charged with enforcing the law looks to public for a solution.

There are just two weeks until Election Day.

Recent polls would indicate New Jersey has no real contests, which could save residents from those oh-so-annoying robocalls hawking this candidate or that one.

But don't count on it. It seems like the political robocalls come no matter what.

Just like the telemarketers.

The difference is that political calls are permitted—of course, politicians passed the law—but traditional telemarketing isn't, at least not from companies with which a person has no business relationship. And commercial robocalls are altogether illegal unless a person has given permission to receive them.

The most recent data from the Federal Trade Commission, charged with enforcing the law, show complaints ballooning—there were 3.8 million in the year ending Sept. 30, compared with 2.3 million just a year earlier.

That shouldn't be surprising, given that fewer companies are even bothering to check the registry—about 28,000 did last year, compared with 52,000 that did in the 2008 fiscal year.

But you probably didn't need to see statistics to know this is true.

Chances are that even if you are on the Do Not Call List, the phone rings incessantly. Offers of credit. Offers to repair credit. Mortgage refinancing. Cancer causes. Law enforcement officers. And a plethora of companies that are going to lower your utility bills.

Caller ID seemed the solution at one point because it lets you choose not to answer those you don't know. But like a horror movie slasher, they just keep trying over and over, day in and day out, at all hours. It seems better to just answer and get it over with. Warn that you are on the do not call list and hear the telemarketers' voices quake in fear as they apologize. Not.

But one shouldn't have to do this. Federal and state laws were supposed to stop these calls. Save for a few high-profile cases here and there, it seems the authorities are doing little.

Apparently, they, too, feel powerless.

The FTC went so far last week as to offer $50,000 to whoever could come up with the best way to block illegal robocalls. If you're a techie with an idea, please, submit your idea.

Think how many people you would make happy:

FTC data shows 217 million phone numbers are listed on the registry—the population of the United States is roughly 314 million. New Jersey has roughly 7 million registrants and a population of 8.8 million. Phone owners here lodged 148,000 complaints in the fiscal year that just ended. Those are the seventh largest registration rate and the sixth highest complaint rate of all the states.

Until that great anti-telemarketing invention is unleashed, people need to keep complaining about these calls. Sen. Linda R. Greenstein (D-Mercer), sponsor of New Jersey's anti-telemarketing law, recently urged people to report telemarketers to the state Division of Consumer Affairs, although this only applies if the telemarketer was trying to sell them something.

Fines begin at $10,000 for telemarketers who violate the law, including calling someone on the registry or calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. Anyone not already signed up for the list and it's hard to imagine why anyone wouldn't—can register online or by calling 1-888-382-1222. 

On a related issue, the state Assembly took steps last spring to ban unsolicited text message ads. This could prove as hard to enforce as the robocalls ban, but it's a start. The Assembly passed the bill, A1218, with an unusually bipartisan 78-0 vote, but the Senate has yet to consider it.

A similar bill stalled in the upper house during the last legislative session, not a good sign for cell phone users hoping to get relief from annoying and unwanted texts.

Now, if only lawmakers at all levels would agree to stop themselves from siccing robocalls on voters. But it turns out one has. Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean) has introduced A369. But don't hold your breath waiting for it to pass. The measure has been kicking around Trenton for years and, if anything, has gotten less popular—it has no co-sponsors and no Senate version.

It's wrong for politicians to exempt themselves from the rules telemarketers are supposed to follow. But if allowing robocalls for Romney or Obama, Kyrillos or Menendez, Christie or whoever for a week twice a year is the price of peace for the other 50 weeks of the year from promises of lower gas prices and mortgage savings, most people would probably gladly pay it.

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