Unlisted Numbers

The recent kerfuffle about the telecom scandal has not yet yielded a satisfactory answer to a question that troubles millions. Ellen Anderson, for one, wonders why we are powerless to stop telemarketers from calling us. “Virtually everyone hates telemarketing calls,” said the Minnesota state senator the other day. “Why can’t we pass laws that reflect the public will?”

She ought to know the answer to that question, because she’s tried. Last January, Minnesota’s much-ballyhooed Do Not Call list went into effect after being voted into law. Anticipating relief from the constant ring of the telephone during dinner, 1.3 million Minnesotans put down their forks and subscribed to the list. They have been disappointed with the results. Beyond initiating a stream of self-congratulatory press releases, the list does not seem to work. There are simply too many loopholes: Nonprofit and political organizations are exempt, as are businesses that have a “prior relationship” with a consumer. Telemarketers who pledge to close the deal after the phone is hung up also are free to continue calling.

Unfortunately, the instruments of torture and of salvation turn out to be the same. Consumers who want to complain about telemarketing must make a call to the agency in charge of the list, the Minnesota Department of Commerce. A tedious automated telephone menu system leads you into the Byzantine world of commerce regulation. The investigator we spoke with—off the record—told us that resources were spread thin, and he was getting tired of fielding calls from irate owners of residential telephones.

Of course, assigning the Commerce Department to regulate marketing activity has resulted in the proliferation of that sad, overplayed metaphor of the fox guarding the henhouse. We wanted to see both the fox and the henhouse for ourselves, but the director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Commerce, an evasive man named Bruce Gordon, was not eager to see us. Refusing an in-person interview and tour of the premises, he said, “There is no system to see at the Commerce Department.” A company in Bloomington provides the telephone and computer services for our Do Not Call list. The company, called NCS Pearson, also insists that there is nothing to see at their offices.

It’s a shame that the fully automated system seems not to exist anywhere, since Minnesota taxpayers have so far paid NCS Pearson a very real $250,000. The stewards of our under-performing Do Not Call list will receive another quarter-million dollars before their contract expires on Halloween of 2004.

Taxpayers may be gratified to know that we also foot the bill for two full-time investigators and a part-time supervisor who look into consumer complaints. The Department of Commerce receives an average of 175 consumer complaints a month. To date, only one company—Mid State Marketing of Pequot Lakes—has been fined. They admitted they made four phone calls before checking the list, and took their punishment like a man. Their debt to society? A whopping $250. Who says there is no justice and no accountability?—Robin Shaw