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Telemarketing Laws

You may occasionally get text messages, calls, or voice messages from salespeople. Around the holidays, charitable organizations and programs might call to ask for donations. These are forms of telemarketing (telephone marketing).

Telemarketing can feel too intrusive for many people. Sales calls are often unsolicited. Consumers don't always realize when they agree to get such calls.

But telemarketing is not necessarily illegal. Buying an item over the phone can be a legitimate shopping option if the caller follows the rules.

Businesses must obey telemarketing laws that limit how they can contact you. These rules are a subset of consumer protection laws.

Federal Law Limits Telemarketing Practices

In the 1980s, businesses began using automated robocalls. Marketing telephone calls became increasingly persistent, often interrupting dinner or tying up the household landline. Consumers complained about how telemarketing was disturbing their lives.

Lawmakers responded by creating rules telemarketers must follow. These rules help restrict spam calls and fight fraud. They also give you a way to stop most unsolicited phone calls.

Federal laws also govern other forms of marketing. For example, the CAN-SPAM Act restricts emails. Advertising laws create a boundary between your private life and anyone who wants your spending money.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991 is one of the most comprehensive telemarketing laws in the United States. It protects consumers against many telemarketing issues.

Under the TCPA, telemarketers must provide the following information when they call you:

  • Their name
  • The name of the entity (typically a business) they represent
  • A telephone number or address you could use to contact the entity, such as through caller ID information

This law also limits the use of auto-dialing services and pre-recorded messages. These tactics make calling hundreds of consumers easier. Without restrictions, businesses might flood your phone with sales recordings.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) actively amends and enforces this telemarketing law. For example, it clarified that human-sounding AI robocalls qualify as pre-recorded messages and are subject to the same TCPA restrictions.

The Telemarketing Sales Rule

The Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) is another federal regulation. It requires more disclosures and prohibits intentional misrepresentations on calls. The TSR also covers consumer calls in response to offers and solicitations via mail or online.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates and enforces this rule. It monitors consumer complaints of telemarketers who violate the TSR.

The Do Not Call Law

The TSR includes Do Not Call provisions. This rule created the National Do Not Call Registry. Telemarketers must remove all phone numbers in the registry (except those of their customers) from their active marketing lists.

The FTC can penalize businesses for calling consumers on the Do Not Call list for advertising purposes.

When Can Telemarketers Call Me?

Telemarketing is only legal during the day. The TCPA prohibits telemarketers from calling your home before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. This rule applies to your local time — not the time zone where the telemarketer places the call.

State Laws Can Also Restrict Telemarketing

On top of federal telemarketing laws, many states add rules that enhance consumer protection. For example, some states allow fewer hours per day for telemarketing calls. In 2023, Florida passed a law prohibiting these calls after 8 p.m. (instead of the federal limit of 9 p.m.).

Your state attorney general may enforce the laws differently, including fines for violations. In Washington, the civil fine is $500 to $2,000. Yet, in Texas, intentionally violating state telemarketing laws can lead to a fine of up to $3,000.

How To Tell if a Telemarketer Is Legitimate

Use the following information to determine whether you are speaking with a legitimate telephone marketer:

  • Telemarketers must tell you whether it is a sales call and which company sells the product or service.
  • Telemarketers can't misrepresent information about products, prizes, investments, and other offers. For sweepstakes, they must explain the odds of winning and that you don't have to buy anything.
  • Telemarketers can't ask you to pay them to claim a prize you already won.
  • Businesses can't call you for marketing purposes if you have asked them to stop. They also can't call your phone number after you add it to the National Do Not Call Registry.
  • Telemarketers must clearly explain the total cost of their offer and the terms of the sale.
  • Telemarketers offering credit repair, advance-fee loans, credit services, and other financial services must explain that you only pay after they have performed or delivered the service.

If the caller doesn't follow one of these rules, they may be a scam caller. Scammers may set up fake caller ID or pretend to represent a legitimate company.

If you suspect a scam, do not give the caller any information. Hang up the phone. You can search the official number for the business or entity they claimed to represent and try calling back to check the caller's legitimacy.

Exemptions To Telemarketing Requirements

Some types of calls don't fall under the same restrictions. For example, a company might call you after you ask for more product information using the contact form on its website. Such calls may follow very different rules.

Exceptions to the rules include:

  • Catalog sales
  • Consumer-initiated calls that are not in response to a solicitation
  • Uncompleted sales
  • Sales of pay-per-call services
  • Calls responding to advertisements that already include all required disclosures
  • Consumer calls responding to general advertisements

These calls are still subject to many general business rules, such as those for unfair and deceptive trade practices.

How To Join the Do Not Call Registry

The FTC allows you to sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry online. Registering your phone number is free. You can add multiple phone numbers, including your cell phone and household landline.

Once you add your phone number, you may still receive marketing calls for a few weeks. Telemarketers have up to 31 days to update their lists. Telemarketing calls after this transitional period are illegal.

If a telemarketer calls you 31 days after adding your number to the Do-Not-Call Registry, you may file a complaint via the FCC or by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (TTY: 1-888-TELL-FCC).

The Registry Doesn't Block All Commercial Calls

The Do Not Call Registry has a few exceptions, such as the following types of calls:

  • Calls from businesses or other entities with which you already have done business
  • Calls from entities that have your prior written permission
  • Non-commercial calls or those without unsolicited advertisements, such as political surveys
  • Calls from tax-exempt nonprofits

Different laws determine when and how these callers can contact you. For example, debt collection calls must follow strict rules to avoid illegal harassment.

If you are a customer with an established business relationship, the Do Not Call Registry will not stop communications. Instead, you may need to directly opt out of marketing calls through the company or organization.

Protect Yourself Against Telemarketing Fraud

Sometimes, a call that seems like a routine sales pitch is a scam. Criminal telemarketing fraud poses a serious risk.

Scammers often find a target's phone number through directories and mailing lists. "Sucker lists" contain the names and numbers of people who have responded to scam calls before and may be likely to believe a fake caller.

A scammer might try to get your money or steal your identity using the following methods:

  • Sweepstakes and prize offerings: A scammer may ask you to buy something, pay a fee, provide a credit card number, or attend a presentation to claim a prize.
  • Vacation offers: Unsolicited calls offering free or discounted travel packages are often bogus. You may end up paying hidden costs and expenses.
  • Charities: A scammer might use fake charity names to seek donations. They may also be unwilling to send you written information about the nonprofit organization.
  • Investment opportunities: Scam callers may promise high returns with minimal risk. If you can't find more details elsewhere to verify their claims, it's likely fraud.
  • Recovery services: Scammers may add insult to injury by promising to refund your money and repair your credit score from previous scams. Never pay upfront for such services, and beware of money guarantees.

Watch out for the red flags of common scams. Never give a suspicious caller your credit card number or other personal information. If you believe you accidentally gave a scam caller your information, learn to protect yourself against identity theft and fraud.

Legal Advice for Phone Marketing Problems

At best, telemarketing calls can be an intrusive but preventable annoyance. At worst, a marketing call could expose sensitive information, leaving you prone to theft.

Consider speaking with a consumer protection lawyer if you believe you are the victim of a scam or have questions about telemarketing laws. An attorney may also help you review your options if you encounter a problem after buying something over the phone.

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