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Telemarketers target cell phones

It will cost you minutes, but get used to it, say experts, because telemarketers want your ear.

After years of impunity, America's 190 million cellular telephone subscribers are now more apt than ever to encounter telemarketers.

There was a rash of complaints to federal regulators 18 months ago when telemarketers were confused by new rules allowing people to transfer their home telephone numbers to cell phones, which then started ringing with telemarketing calls. Then in March, BellCanada cellular customers were targeted by a company pitching a low-cost trip to Mexico. The same message has recently in San Francisco.

"The last thing you want to hear from is a telemarketer when you're stepping out of the commuter train in the morning."
--Jen Schwartzman, FTC spokeswoman

"What can be done about this?" cell phone user Ben Wexlar, who received a telemarketing call, wondered in a News.com forum.

Not much, unfortunately. Just about the only recourse a consumer has is to subscribe to the National Do Not Call Registry.

Cell phones are just too juicy a target for some telemarketers to ignore. There are now more cell phones on the planet than land lines. And calls to cell phones lead to a more targeted audience because the home phone can be answered by any number of people. A cell phone, on the other hand, typically is answered by only one person.

But the telemarketers' sweet spot is a very sore spot for consumers. "Your cell phone is your portable communications, it's much more personal," said Federal Trade Commission spokeswoman Jen Schwartzman. "The last thing you want to hear from is a telemarketer when you're stepping out of the commuter train in the morning."

For their part, telemarketers suggest that what cell phone users are now experiencing is largely unintended. They say telemarketers aren't targeting cell phones, but sometimes mistakes happen. "So many of our customers are switching to cell phones," and provide the dealer with a cell phone number, causing the confusion, said Paul Cleaver, the owner of a Lexington, Ky., Dodge dealership that uses telemarketing.

In the most wide-scale telemarketing cases, cell phone customers in the same area code are getting the same calls on the same day, according to several accounts. That suggests the use of auto dialers, which is what BellCanada says happened when many of its cell phone customers were hit with telemarketing calls in March. It's unclear who was actually making the travel pitch. The North American Numbering Plan Administration, which administers phone numbers, did not respond to a request for information about the origin of the calls.

Aggravation aside, the telemarketing calls to cell phones are most likely illegal. Federal rules forbid using automated dialing machines to reach any phones, such as a cell phone, in which incoming calls cost the subscriber money. Under the rules, telemarketers are allowed to dial each number by hand, but that would be ridiculously labor-intensive, said Rosemary Kimball, a Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman.

Cell phone providers and their subscribers aren't entirely helpless. Verizon Wireless last year won a permanent injunction stopping a Rhode Island resident from sending unsolicited text messages touting real estate deals to Verizon customers.

The most immediate option for consumers is to sign on with the Do Not Call Registry on the Internet or call 1-888-382-1222 from the phone number to be registered.

The Do Not Call database does not distinguish between cell and land-line phone numbers, but Schwartzman figures many cell phone customers are among the 34 million numbers added since January. The registry received 9 million new sign-ups alone the week a privately generated e-mail warned of telemarketers eating up subscribers' minutes with unwanted calls, she said.

In many cases, that list is the consumer's only recourse. "After the unpleasantry (of getting a telemarketing call on a cell phone), I called my carrier, Verizon Wireless, to report it, and of course they could only suggest that I sign my number up on the www.donotcall.gov list," wrote someone named Diana at popular cell phone Internet chat room CellBanter.com.

Calling a telephone registered on the Do Not Call list can open a telemarketer to a fine of up to $500 for each call, which triples to $1,500 if the telemarketer can be shown to have deliberately skirted state and federal anti-telemarketing laws.

States can also file civil lawsuits against telemarketers, and the FCC can levy fines against telemarketers after investigations generated by civilian complaints, which can be made via e-mail at fccinfo@fcc.gov, or on the Web.

Telemarketers are also dialing an increasing number of European cell phone subscribers, potentially another marketing gold mine because in some locations cell phones outnumber people. "From our research experience, I can tell you that these kinds of calls are an increasing issue," Torsten Brodt, of the University of St. Gallen's Institute for Media and Communications Management, wrote to News.com.

The institute has yet to study telemarketing specifically, but has investigated something related to it: the number of unsolicited e-mail pitches being sent to cell phones. Mobile spam, as it is known, is also all but outlawed in the U.S. primarily because operators typically charge a fee to receive any kind of text message. More than a quarter of North American cell phone subscribers received some form of mobile spam, according to data St. Gallen's Institute published in February.

For its part, a cell phone industry group says operators are leaning on technological tricks, such as installing software that detects text messaging between cell phones, to help spot telemarketing pestilence such as mobile spam.

"We're doing what we can to ensure that wireless numbers don't get in the hands of telemarketers," said a spokeswoman for CTIA, the wireless association. "No operator is giving wireless numbers to telemarketers."