Consumers Score a Huge Win
The telemarketing industry has been growing steadily in recent years, but it has a dark side that has been growing just as fast, if not faster: Last year, Americans received about 2.4 billion robocalls per month, according to the most recent statistics.
Many of these robocalls violate a number of telecommunications laws. For starters, if the recording is a sales message and you haven’t given your written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal. Many of these telemarketers deliberately falsify their caller ID information to increase the chances you will pick up the phone, which is also illegal.
Consumers fed up by these calls gained a major victory in mid-June when federal regulators announced plans to fine a man in Miami $120 million for allegedly running a massive robocall “spoofing” operation that placed 96 million calls in three months—that’s more than a million calls a day—to peddle time-shares and other products.
The financial penalty in this case was still awaiting approval by the courts at press time, but if approved, it would be the largest judgment ever against an individual for this kind of marketing activity. To date, the Federal Trade Commission has brought more than 100 lawsuits against more than 600 companies and individuals responsible for similar violations.
Clearly these are victories for the consumer, shuttering operations that flagrantly violate the law and skirt existing consumer protections.
But the challenges do not end there. Another telemarketing tool, called ringless voicemail, is gaining steam, as a number of marketing technology providers in June added the technology to their platforms. With ringless voicemail, telemarketing messages are quietly deposited through a back door directly into consumers’ voicemail in-boxes without ever touching their phones or carrier networks.
The legality of ringless voicemail technology is still being debated in the halls of government. A number of companies that provide it have petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to declare that leaving ringless voicemail does not constitute a phone call that is then subject to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). That law essentially limits when and how companies can reach out to consumers with telemarketing messages. Among its provisions, the TCPA prohibits most solicitations that use artificial voices or recordings and prohibits calls made using automated dialers, except in certain situations.
Until we hear otherwise, let’s assume that ringless voicemail is legal. That can be a good thing, as the benefits to some businesses could be numerous. It would, for example, facilitate airlines letting passengers know of flight delays, utilities letting subscribers know of outages, schools alerting parents to weather-related closings, or charities building awareness of their latest campaigns. Experts estimate that more than 75 percent of business calls end up in voicemail anyway, so why not make the process easier and cheaper for these kinds of organizations?
Additionally, ringless voicemail would allow these organizations to connect and engage with consumers in an even less-intrusive manner. Consumers could listen to the voicemail messages when and where they want, without having their phones ring inappropriately during dinner or important client meetings.
Telemarketers—at least those who are concerned with regulatory compliance—should be able to deliver ringless voicemail messages, as long as they do so responsibly. That means skipping over consumers on the national “Do Not Call” list, properly identifying themselves, and giving people a way to opt out of receiving similar messages in the future.
But let’s be clear: Scammers have figured out ways to bypass laws and industry best practices related to standard telemarketing, as the Florida case demonstrated. The potential for abuse with ringless voicemail is at least as great, if not greater. Consumers, telemarketers, government regulators, and even technology providers should all be prepared to work together to curb the possible misuse of the technology.
Leonard Klie is the editor of CRM magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.