Telephone Consumer Protection Act-Protecting consumers from unwanted telephone calls  

Martha Jane, Intern, SpeakingThreads

You are in the middle of an important meeting or doing something really important, and suddenly your phone rings; you answer the phone, only to hear the caller advertising products you don’t need and incessantly persuading you to buy them. This is not the first time you have received such unsolicited calls; it has happened before and for some strange reason beyond comprehension, most such calls could not have been more ‘inappropriately’ timed. Such unwarranted and unsolicited calls have become a menace and a terrible nuisance to millions of telephone users around the world.


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In USA, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was enacted with a view to regulate, amongst others, unwanted and unsolicited advertising over telephones, cellular phones, paging services etc.

The Act specifically defines the terms, “telephone solicitation” and “unsolicited advertisement”. Under Section 227 of the Act, the term “telephone solicitation” has been defined as the initiation of a telephone call or message for the purpose of encouraging the purchase or rental of, or investment in, property, goods, or services, which is transmitted to any person, but such term does not include a call or message (a) to any person with that person’s prior express invitation or permission, (b) to any person with whom the caller has an established business relationship, or (c) by a tax exempt non-profit organization.  The term “unsolicited advertisement” means any material advertising the commercial availability or quality of any property, goods, or services which is transmitted to any person without that person’s prior express invitation or permission.

The Act restricts the use of “automatic telephone dialling system”, i.e. equipment which has the capacity to store telephone numbers to be called, using a number generator, and dial such numbers.  Such automatic dialling systems are widely used for telephone solicitation. To help prevent people from being deluged with such unwanted and unsolicited calls, the Act prohibits any person in the United States to make calls, using any such automatic dialling system, to any emergency telephone line including hospitals, fire protection services and law enforcement agencies. Calls made to the telephone line of any guest room or patient room of any hospital, health care facility, old age homes or similar establishments are also prohibited. The Act also prohibits any person from initiating any telephone call to any residential telephone line using an artificial or pre-recorded voice deliver a message without the prior express consent of the called party. This prohibition is aimed at curbing unsolicited advertisement, which has become a major source of nuisance and a menace for the telephone user. Of course, calls initiated for emergency purposes are exempted from the scope of this prohibition.

A very interesting feature of this Act is the establishment and operation of a single national database comprising a list of telephone numbers of residential subscribers who object to receiving telephone solicitations, and making such list available for purchase. Telephone exchange service providers will inform the subscribers of the service of the opportunity to provide notification of his objection to receiving telephone solicitations. Such a provision, therefore, prohibits any person from making or transmitting a telephone solicitation to the telephone number of any subscriber included in the database. This would make the task of initiating the telephone solicitation that much more difficult; since, any person who is desirous of initiating a telephone solicitation would now have to access the database to avoid calling any telephone number included in the database. Another disincentive is that the maker of such telephone solicitation would have to bear the costs involved in accessing the database.

The need to have such legislations and rules in place arises from the immense popularity of ‘Telemarketing’ in the United States. Telemarketing is a practice where a business initiates a phone call in order to propose a commercial transaction. Telemarketing is a booming business primarily because of its cost effectiveness in marketing products. The costs involved are low for the telemarketer, but high on those individuals who may be annoyed, inconvenienced, or even psychologically harmed by numerous uninvited calls during the day. Such uninvited and unsolicited calls force telephone users to install Equipments like caller ID, answering machines etc. to screen such calls, thereby imposing additional financial burden on them apart from the inconvenience caused owing to such calls. Interestingly, phone companies are in a win-win situation; they sell both the tools that enable telemarketing and products to help individuals avoid sales calls. To enable telemarketing, phone companies sell dialling equipment, the lines and infrastructure that enable calling multiple persons at one time, and lists of new customers. On the other hand, to help individuals avoid telemarketing, the same companies sell unlisted numbers, caller ID, and systems such as Privacy Manager.  

Another important piece of legislation, apart from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, is the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud Abuse Act. This Act addresses the specific aspects of telemarketing, and empowers the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue the Telemarketing Sale Rules (TSR). These rules put certain broad restrictions on telemarketers. Telemarketers are required to declare their names and the purpose of the call at the very outset of the sales call. In case of a purchase, the telemarketer must disclose the total charge or cost to the consumer and all policies related to such sale. The rules also regulate the time of making marketing calls; no calls can be initiated before 8 A.M. or after 9 P.M. in the recipient’s time zone. Such restrictions are necessary as thousands of telemarketing sales calls are made to defraud consumers. If any individual should feel victimized by illegal telemarketing, he has the right to lodge a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Whilst these legislations and rules have been made to protect numerous telephone users across US, consumers themselves should take adequate safeguards. Wherever possible, they should minimize the amount of personal data and information they share with businesses. Such confidential and personal information is often passed on to telemarketers, who may use them for their marketing purposes. Consumers must never disclose their telephone numbers unless it is absolutely essential to complete the transaction. Most product surveys are used to identify potential marketing customers. People must be careful not to disclose their telephone numbers in such surveys.

It is neither feasible nor advisable to altogether put an end to telemarketing, but such businesses must not be allowed to jeopardize an individual’s right to privacy. You may have a right to carry on your business, but not at the cost of my right privacy.