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US cracking down on dinner-interrupting marketing robocalls

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Updated at 9:30 p.m. Feb. 16: The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday it's going after those annoying automated marketing calls that always seem to come right as you're sitting down to dinner.

The commission unanimously adopted new rules to crack down on what are known as robocalls. That's when a company sets up its computers to call thousands of numbers in sequence, hoping one or two of them will be answered by someone who'll listen to a pitch for whatever they're selling.

"Unwanted telemarketing calls and texts were consistently in the top three consumer complaint categories at the FCC in 2011," the commission said. "Robocalls invade consumers' privacy, and can, in the case of calls to wireless numbers, use up their minutes."

Jerry Cerasale, senior vice president of the Direct Marketing Association, told msnbc.com on Thursday that the association applauded the ruling and called on the commission to put "significant resources into enforcement."

"When a marketer places a marketing robocall to a consumer who has not given written permission to receive such calls, not only is the consumer bothered by the illegal call, but also legitimate, law-abiding marketers are harmed," Cerasale said. 

In the past, the industry has vigorously opposed government restrictions on whom it may call. Several groups sued to stop enforcement of the National Do-Not-Call Registry when it was created in 2003, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them.

Hanging up on telemarketers

The FCC said its new rules will:

• Require telemarketers to obtain prior express written consent from consumers, including by electronic means such as a website form, before placing a robocall to a consumer.

• Eliminate the "established business relationship" exemption to the requirement that telemarketing robocalls to residential wireline phones occur only with prior express consent from the consumer.

• Require telemarketers to provide an automated, interactive "opt-out" mechanism during each robocall so that consumers can immediately tell the telemarketer to stop calling.

• Strictly limit the number of abandoned or "dead air" calls that telemarketers can make within each calling campaign.

Source: Federal Communications Commission

Wednesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said it had become clear that the current rules, which the FCC enforces along with the Federal Trade Commission, weren't working.

"Too many telemarketers, aided by autodialers and prerecorded messages, have continued to call consumers who don't want to hear from them," he said in a statement. And "consumers by the thousands have complained to us."

The problem is that the current rules include several loopholes that telemarketers — scrupulous and unscrupulous alike — can drive their calls through.

For one thing, a company currently can claim it's exempt from leaving you alone if it can show an "established business relationship" with you. That can include any previous communication between you and the company, including "communications" as minor as a small purchase you might have made at a store owned by a subsidiary of the company a year and a half ago.

Saying its data show consumers are especially frustrated by that loophole, the FCC eliminated the exemption Wednesday. 

Read the full announcement (.pdf) 

And previously, the only way you could stop those kinds of calls was to contact the company and ask to opt out. The new rules require telemarketers to obtain "prior express written consent" from you. 

In other words, what used to be an "opt-out" system is now an "opt-in" system. Companies can't call you unless you tell them in writing ahead of time that it's OK.

Two other rules are also intended to limit or stop unwanted calls at home:

• Telemarketers must include an automated way for you to opt out immediately during any robocall.

• They have to stop calling a number completely after a few calls go unanswered or you hang up on a call.

Robert McDowell, a member of the commission, said in a statement that the rules were narrowly targeted to exempt charities and political organizations, along with institutions providing needed information, like school systems that use the calls to alert parents when schools are closed.

Most of the displeasure is over commercial telemarketers, he said, adding, "Sometimes it seems like there's no escape."

Watch Tom Costello's report for "NBC Nightly News":

The Federal Communications Commission announced new robocall requirements, but nonprofits and political campaigns are still able to place the automated phone calls. NBC's Tom Costello reports.


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