Originally created 11/29/97

Condon to telemarketers: Don't call us, we'll call you

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Fed up with those dinner time calls for "lost luggage protection" or charities you've never heard of? State Attorney General Charlie Condon on Friday proposed legislation to make some of them illegal.

Condon wants local telephone companies to keep a list of customers who don't want unsolicited calls. Calling someone on the list would be a misdemeanor with as much as 30 days in jail for a first offense and five years for the third violation.

"If we get this passed and it becomes a crime in South Carolina to violate this law, I think people will stop calling," the Republican attorney general said.

He has lined up state Sen. Joe Wilson, R-West Columbia, and Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Columbia, as sponsors.

The law, for instance, won't mean your plumbing contractor can't call about an upgrade to a china tub over your porcelain selection. But it would stop stock brokers trolling for business, those calls asking you to switch long-distance companies and those calls about can't-pass-up services offered by credit card companies, even if you already carry their card.

"That's a major abuse," Condon said.

Telemarketing will generate $424.5 billion in U.S. sales this year, according to the Direct Marketing Association. With millions in South Carolina sales up for grabs, Condon expects public support, but a lot of back room legislative debate.

"When it gets to key committees and lobbyists show up, there's going to be a huge battle to stop it," Condon said.

Requiring phone customers to sign-up for the list could make the idea more likely to survive a legal challenge, Condon said.

He said his office, which took over regulation of charities from Secretary of State Jim Miles, receives numerous complaints about fraudulent telemarketers who bilk residents of millions of dollars. A 70-year-old Charleston man had to take a paper route to make money after he was scammed badly by a phone solicitor, Condon said.

Wilson said an elderly woman in his district was taken for $128,000 by a telemarketer who promised prizes that never materialized. "That needs to be stopped," he said.

BellSouth supports Condon's concept, but wonders if local phone companies are best to handle the lists, spokesman Gregg Morton said,

BellSouth has about 65 percent of South Carolina's 2 million phone lines. However, with 26 local exchange companies and 90 others seeking to provide local service, lists that might be complete one day could change overnight because of customer switching, Morton said.

"It might make more sense for state government to compile the database," he said.

Condon envisions phone companies sending customers cards to fill out to stop sales calls. Telemarketers would pay for the list to help offset the compilation costs, he said.

Georgia and Kansas have talked of similar approaches, he said.

Unlike when Miles handled charities enforcement, Condon said he will not put out a "Scrooge List" of charities that use the smallest proportion of donations to directly help people.

"The root cause here is the ability to get in to the household by phone. ... I think this is a much better way to address it," Condon said.


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