BETWEEN THE LINES: Whether or not your candidate was elected, the end of the 2013 political campaign season surely delighted Brooklynites frustrated by months of annoying, unsolicited reaching-out-and-touching calls from local and citywide political campaigns.
Even if you added residential landline and mobile telephone numbers to the national Do Not Call Registry, which limits most telemarketing calls you’d rather not receive, politicians continue to bombard us with live and automated calls since they are exempt from the ruling.
It’s time to amend that regulation and punish politicians, like telemarketing violators, up to $16,000 per complaint! Well-financed campaigns could set aside funds to cover this, while those with smaller campaign chests can just continue the cut-rate alternative — stuffing our mailboxes with equally unwanted brochures and leaflets.
Some may insist it’s a Freedom of Speech issue, but that’s Bullshit — with a capital “B”! Politicians commonly support and enact legislation that specifically exclude them from rules and regulations that apply to the very same people who elect them to serve.
There’s little argument that one of the most appreciated byproducts of the technological age is the national Do Not Call list. For those who may be unsure how to stop telemarketers from inundating you with inconvenient calls, log on to www.donotcall.gov, and enter each of your phone numbers. Within 31 days, most, but not all, telemarketers are supposed to stop calling. Except for political messages. Like the Energizer bunny, they just keep coming and coming, particularly in the weeks and months before an election.
According to the Federal Trade Commission website, political solicitations are not covered by the agency’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) that was part of the 1991 Telephone Protection Act. Political spam, according to the regulation, is not considered “telemarketing.” Just more political skulduggery that sets elected officials apart from the population that elects them.
Also excluded from those who may not call numbers on the registry list, the site notes, “are charities and telephone surveyors, and calls from companies with which you have an existing business relationship, or those to whom you provided express agreement in writing to receive their calls.”
Calls from non-profits can be annoying, too, but may be more tolerable since they generally solicit donations for beneficent organizations.
When they first introduced the Do Not Call register in 2004, it seemed like a scheme that would not work. I registered my phone numbers, but was skeptical that telephone spam would decline. At the outset, I was not conscious of it, but offers to reduce my electric bill or somebody hawking one product or service that I don’t want or need progressively stopped.
Nonetheless, like clockwork, from Labor Day to Election Day, the phone rings relentlessly, with most having no or an “unknown” caller ID. That’s the first clue not to answer, but sometimes it’s irresistible. Right off, I know it’s not urgent when it takes 10 to 15 seconds for the message to begin or for someone to come on the line. As a rule, these calls are recorded announcements reminding me to vote or from a recognizable individual electioneering for a particular candidate. I hang up when there’s more than five seconds of silence.
Politicians should not be excluded from the Do Not Call list. In fact, earlier this year, a North Carolina Republican, who does not use the method, said her office received complaints from constituents and so she introduced legislation, known as Robo COP (Robo Calls Off Phones), to include only political robocalls, not live callers, on the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry. As expected, the bill, which had a measly five co-sponsors, went nowhere fast and is unlikely to gain momentum unless more people complain to their representatives or the FTC.
While researching this column I learned about the non-binding StopPoliticalCalls.org, run by the non-profit Citizens for Civil Discourse. This registry is specifically targeted to discourage political campaigns. The group says it has won commitments to cut the calls from several political campaigns. You can be added to this list for free, although there are also paid options.
Some years ago, the quickest way to end telephone spam was by pressing pound (or hashtag, to the Twitter generation), but that no longer works. Some robocalls politely direct you to press a specific number to opt out from future calls, but that doesn’t always work either, and may subject you to follow-up calls.
The easiest thing to do is to hang up, get the number of the spam caller, if possible, and file a complaint with the FTC at DoNotCall.gov. Furthermore, even if you’re on the Do Not Call list, the businesses and organizations that call again and again aren’t likely to comply with the law or the Do Not Call list, so those complaints may help the FTC trace and prosecute them.
On Election Day, robo-messages promoting the New York City mayoral, City Council and borough president candidates didn’t stop until after 6 p.m. In the days leading up to November 5, I averaged about six robocalls a day. I stopped answering the phone when my caller ID didn’t specify the caller. In some instances, however, there was a number but no ID.
A partial solution to the live calls dilemma — albeit farfetched — parallels a premise from the Season 4 Seinfeld episode (“The Pitch”).
Jerry receives a call from a long distance service telemarketer and asks if he could call back. The caller replies that he’s “not allowed to do that,” so Seinfeld responds, “I guess you don’t want people calling you at home.” The telemarketer answers, “No,” to which Jerry says, “Now you know how I feel” and hangs up.
If we could only turn the tables on our legislators. Politicians, who want to remain exempt from the Do Not Call Registry, would be forced to publicize their home numbers, so we can call them six times a day during a campaign to clarify their stances on the issues. Then we’d see how expeditiously they’d sanction inclusion on Do Not Call lists.
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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