• U.S.

Too Many Busy Signals

2 minute read

What’s less bulky than direct mail but just as likely to surround you with carefully crafted pitches? Answer: computerized machines that can automatically call and relay messages to thousands of telephone owners daily, and facsimile machines that can send reams of information to unsuspecting offices.

Already, 180,000 businesses use automatic-dialing systems to deliver pre- recorded sales pitches to as many as 7 million people each day, according to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and 2 million U.S. offices employ fax machines to transmit more than 30 billion pages of information — much of it unsolicited — per year.

Consumers complain that calls from these “electronic salesmen,” who get their names by purchasing mailing lists, constitute an invasion of their privacy. They are concerned that solicitations that continue even after a recipient hangs up can have serious consequences for fire stations and emergency rooms, which the dialers can reach unintentionally. What irks people most is having to pay for solicitations they never asked for. Those with car phones and pagers are charged for every minute they use a telephone line, whether or not they initiated the call, and fax-machine owners pay up to 10 cents a sheet for the special paper the machines use to print out messages, including ones they did not request.

More than a dozen states have passed legislation to stem the electronic barrage. Some versions ban or restrict the hours in which automatic dialers can be used. Others — notably Connecticut, Florida, Maryland and Oregon — prohibit unsolicited fax-machine advertisements outright. Constitutional lawyers argue that fax bans might violate the senders’ free-speech rights, but Congress may take action. Democratic Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts is sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal to send fax solicitations or automatically dialed, prerecorded phone pitches to people who have notified a clearinghouse that they do not want them. The White House says the number of complaints doesn’t seem to warrant such legislation.

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