WASHINGTON – The millions of people who signed up for the government's do-not-call list (search) should get fewer sales pitches from telemarketers starting Wednesday, but for how long is anybody's guess.
A confusing legal fight has thrown the list into disarray, forcing federal officials to rework the system to handle complaints and enforce penalties.
For now, officials are directing those consumers who registered phone numbers on the list to send complaints to the Federal Communications Commission (search) by visiting www.fcc.gov/cgb/complaints.html or calling 1-888-225-5322.
FCC staff, who until recently had no plans to handle all do-not-call complaints, were scrambling to prepare. Outdated instructions for filing complaints related to the list were still on government phone messages and Web sites Tuesday afternoon.
"You've gone from an automated and highly efficient enforcement system to a manual one," FCC Chairman Michael Powell (search) told reporters after testifying to a Senate committee. "It will be a little tougher, but it's not shut down."
The list contains more than 50 million home and cell phone numbers. Companies could face thousands of dollars in fines each time they call a registered number.
The Federal Trade Commission (search) said Tuesday it is moving to stop accepting new numbers while a court fight with telemarketers seeking to stop the list plays out. Despite the legal wrangling, many of the largest telemarketers say they will abide by the list.
Consumers can expect a significant decrease in calls, "assuming telemarketers comply," said Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris. The FTC was blocked from operating and enforcing the list last week by a federal judge who said the program violates the free speech rights of telemarketers. Muris said the legal fight could last into next year.
"This doesn't mean that consumers will be without protection," Muris said. "It will just be a more cumbersome and difficult system."
The list was intended to block about 80 percent of telemarketing calls. Exemptions include calls from charities, pollsters and on behalf of politicians. A company also may call a person on the no-call list if that person has bought, leased or rented from the company within the past 18 months or has inquired about or applied for something during the past three months.
Recent legal challenges and the government's makeshift fixes to keep the list in business have left other holes in the registry's protections.
The do-not-call list works by requiring telemarketers to pay for a copy of the list so they can know whom to avoid calling. Many telemarketers have the list, but some do not and cannot obtain it since the FTC shut down that aspect of the program on Sunday in response to the court rulings.
The FCC can only penalize those who have the list.
Powell said that while investigating complaints, the FCC would ask a telemarketing firm accused of a violation whether it had the list. "Lying to us is a dangerous thing," he said, noting that deceiving the agency could result in serious legal actions.
Some telemarketers say the legal confusion has their industry in turmoil, with many unsure about which numbers can and can't be called and what actions will result in penalties.
Home phone numbers for 11 top telemarketing executives are on the do-not-call list, The Hartford Courant reported on its Web site Tuesday. One of them is Jerry Cerasale, a senior vice president with the Direct Marketing Association.
"Internet registration is subject to abuse," Cerasale said before the Senate committee.
Telemarketers criticize the list for allowing the registration of any phone number online with only an e-mail address for confirmation. Cerasale is one of several people from the DMA placed on the list without their permission, said association spokesman Louis Mastria.
In the last week, the bewildering battle between the government and telemarketers has involved two federal judges, an appeals court, both houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and two federal agencies.
Late Monday, U.S. District Judge Edward W. Nottingham in Denver denied a request to suspend his decision blocking the FTC from running the list. He also warned the agency could face more legal action for using the FCC to skirt the order.
On Tuesday, the FTC asked the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to suspend Nottingham's ruling that blocked the agency from operating the list. Government officials from 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico filed a brief with the court supporting the FTC.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee holding the hearing, bemoaned the uncertainties.
"A concept that to most people is as simple as `do not call me' has become tremendously complex," McCain said.