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“Do Not Call” Doesn’t Work

According to this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the US Federal Do Not Call List is a failure

Regulators say the system is working, but a recent random survey (by telephone) by the Customer Care Alliance, a Virginia-based consortium of three customer-relations consultants, found that 51% of registered consumers say they’re still getting calls they think the list is supposed to block. Lois Greisman, the Federal Trade Commission official in charge of the registry, says the agency receives a "steady flow" of between 1,000 and 2,000 complaints about telemarketers every day.

They have a million reported violations, have filed 14 lawsuits, and levied exactly two fines, one of which was against AT&T, the company administering the system. 

The folks in Washington are trying to do the right thing, but their solution is the wrong solution.  An army of investigators, and that’s what it will take, isn’t going to solve the problem.  If each investigator can process one case to completion per day, they need 5,000 investigators to get through the backlog over the next year, plus another 2,000 investigators to handle all of the new volume.  Salaries alone are likely over $400 million annually.

The Federal experience isn’t unique, either.  In 2002, the AARP published a series of research reports on State level Do Not Call Lists, showing similar results.  For instance, in Missouri over 60% of participants in their do not call list continued to receive unwanted telemarketing calls. 

Lynn Willner, a research scientist at George Washington University, says she signs up for do-not-call lists, shreds her bills, opts out of mail solicitations, has added antispyware software to her computer and checks her credit report yearly, but still feels like she’s falling behind. "At this point, I feel like I’m fighting a losing war," she says. "Is there really any positive news out there about the protection of consumer privacy?"

I hate to say it Ms Willner, but the problem will only continue to get worse as IP telephony takes hold in the network.  Do Not Call Lists are a fundamentally broken idea — a Soviet style centrally controlled economy solution layered on top of a wild west marketplace.  What’s needed is a technology solution — the equivalent of a spam filter for your phone.  When technology can understand the relevance of a call to the recipient, then this issue can be addressed.  The irony  is that telemarketers might benefit too, by being able to contact prospects who might actually, for once, have a real interest in the products being sold.

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