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FTC all but bans robocalls

Federal Trade Commission is restricting telemarketers from sending prerecorded phone calls to consumers unless the consumer gives written consent to receive them.

WASHINGTON--The Federal Trade Commission essentially banned robocalls Tuesday--creating new rules that telemarketers may only send the prerecorded sales pitches to people who actually want to receive them.

The FTC amended its Telemarketing Sales Rule after reviewing more than 14,000 comments made since October 2006, when proposed amendments were published for public consideration.

There are two stages to the change: By December 2008, robocalls will be required to include an automated key-press or voice-activated opt-out. Beginning September 2009, telemarketers won't be able to send out any robocalls without "the prior express written agreement of the recipient to receive such calls."

There are no exceptions for telemarketers to send robocalls to customers with whom they have an "established business relationship," as an earlier policy allowed, but there are some exceptions. Health care-related calls subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 are still allowed, as are charitable fundraising robocalls made to members of the nonprofit charitable organization for which the call is placed, or to people who previously donated to it. The fundraising calls must still include an automated opt-out, however.

The strict limits won't stop robocalls from political campaigns, either."Political calls are not placed for the purpose of inducing purchases of goods or services, and therefore are not 'telemarketing' within the meaning of the TSR," the FTC notes in a footnote of the amendment.

Congress made some attempts this year to address annoying prerecorded political phone messages. The Robocall Privacy Act of 2008, introduced in both the House and Senate earlier this year, would put a number of limits on robocalls from political campaigns, including the number of calls made to a house in one day and the hours such calls can be made.