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The facade of the FCC building
Image by Jay Westicott, Politico.

Consumer rights advocates and three attorneys general are asking the Federal Communications Commission to curb a new straight-to-voicemail messaging technique being used by debt collectors and telemarketers.

The FCC is seeking feedback from the public after receiving a petition from a ‘ringless voicemail provider’ trying to avoid regulation under the confines of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.

According to The Seattle Times’ summary of the Act, it prohibits the calling of cellular phones ‘with automated dialing and artificial or prerecorded voices’ without first obtaining consent, save for in cases of emergency. Statewide and regional ‘Amber Alert’ warnings are an example of the sort of emergency notification which can be circulated to consumers en masse.

However, All About the Message, the company petitioning the FCC over its straight-to-voicemail services, is looking at its distribution technology, borrowed from Stratics Networks, with an eye for profit.

Straight-to-voicemail services would be useful for telemarketers and debt collectors looking to contact consumers without having to worry about being rejected at the mere sight of an unfamiliar number.

Despite the obvious benefits for businesses, the potential for abuse has many consumer advocates on edge.

“They are all poised to launch a cannon full of calls to customers,” said Peter F. Barry, a consumer lawyer from Minneapolis who spoke to The Seattle Times. “If there is no liability for it, it will be a new law that needs to get passed very quickly.”

Ringless voicemail technology helps telemarketers and debt collectors reach clients and bypass call-blocking services. Image courtesy of Minh Uong, The New York Times.

Without regulation, Margot Freeman Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, wrote that ringless-voicemail messages “will likely overwhelm consumers’ voicemail systems, and consumers will have no way to limit, control or stop these messages.”

Continuing, Saunders also wrote, “Debt collectors could potentially hijack a consumer’s voicemail with collection messages.”

The founder of Stratics Networks, Josh Justice, said the intent of his company’s technology, which has existed for nearly a decade, was to provide a non-nuisance alternative to traditional cold calls.

Justice had hoped hospitals, dentists’ offices, and doctors would benefit from straight-to-voicemail technologies which would let them remind clients of upcoming appointments and check-ups without having to dial them directly. He said he hoped Stratics’ services would lead to a rise in ‘responsible marketing.’

“The concept of ringless voicemail was to develop a nonnuisance form of messaging or a noninstrusive alternative to robocalls,” he said.

Although Justice doesn’t think straight-to-voicemail should be regulated the same way as traditional telemarketing, he feels businesses should exercise responsibility by passing over customers who sign up for services like the national ‘Do Not Call’ directory.

In a joint letter, attorneys general from New York, Massachusetts, and Kentucky, voiced their opposition to the sorts of ‘responsible marketing’ techniques Justice’s technology could be used for.

“The federal government has a basic responsibility to protect American consumers,” wrote New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “That certainly doesn’t mean making it even easier for companies to spam them with costly, unsolicited, ringless robocalls.”

While the Republican National Committee has come out in support of protecting ringless voicemails on grounds of the First Amendment – they routinely use the technology to petition voters for donations – the attorneys general disagreed.

“Ringless voicemail bypasses important lines of defense for consumers and threatens the efficacy of call blocking application which can protect consumers from scams and unlawful calls,” they wrote.

Sources

States push FCC to not allow straight-to-voicemail telemarketing messages

Telemarketers, debt collectors fight to bypass ringtone on cellphones

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