E-mail hoax sparks 'Do Not Call' stampede

Erroneous message warns that telemarketers can call cell phones if people don't opt out. Millions flock to Do Not Call site.

A hoax e-mail circulating the Internet has millions of Americans scurrying to add their cell phones to a national Do Not Call list to avoid telemarketers.

The e-mail warns recipients that telemarketers will have new rights to call cell phones beginning Jan. 1, if people don't request anonymity by Wednesday. In the last week, 9.5 million people registered with the Do Not Call list, many as a result of the warning, according to its governing agency the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC typically fields up to 200,000 requests in a week, according to FTC spokeswoman Jen Schwartzman.

"People are panicked, and I think the only thing they got right in the e-mail is our Web site registration information," Schwartzman said.

The agency hasn't seen such volume since it introduced the service in July 2003. Schwartzman compared the current stampede to a 2002 frenzy that was sparked by an e-mail cautioning that personal financial data would be released to third parties.

Like many rumors, the current cell phone scare has a kernel of truth at its core. It was likely spawned by a new project called the Wireless 411 Service, which has been proposed by several major wireless phone carriers including AT&T Wireless. The service, expected to be available next year, will let people look up cell phone numbers the same way they look up numbers using the nationwide 411 directory service. But unlike the directory for home and business numbers, people must ask their wireless phone carrier to be included in the cellular directory and telemarketers won't have access to it.

Telemarketers are barred from calling cell phones under rules set by the FCC.

Backers of the 411 service recently sent out a press release to try to dispel rumors that this project would open people's cell phones to sales pitches.

According to Qsent, the organization behind Wireless 411, cell phone numbers won't be included by default. People also can change their minds if they have previously agreed to add their number. And the service will not be shared online or through a public directory.

"Like most urban legends, the facts refute the e-mail message's scare tactics," Qsent said in a statement.

Still, that didn't stop Ted Strodder, a San Francisco Bay area realtor, from signing up with the Do Not Call list after the e-mail reached the 80 people in his office.

"Everyone in the office got it today," he said. "I forwarded the e-mail as a courtesy."

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