Have Telemarketers Found A Mississippi Loophole?

There are exemptions to state law which forbids telemarketers from calling residents who register their names on the state's no-call list.

Newspapers can still make telemarketing pitches to potential subscribers. Licensed real estate agents may place phone calls. A company can still dial up its own customers, even those who signed up for no-call list, to pitch additional products.

But what if a Mississippi customer has a charge card with a chain of gas stations that has parent or sister companies that sell insurance or Florida condos or magazine subscriptions?

In this age of mergers and acquisitions, a corporate family can have hundreds of members. Can telemarketers from the entire corporate family bombard a customer, even on Mississippi's no-call list, with sales pitches?

In many states, telemarketers could slide thought that legal loophole.

"But not in Mississippi; here, that would be a violation of Mississippi's no-call law,'' said Public Service Commissioner Nielsen Cochran.

Mississippians were first allowed to register on the state's no-call list on July 7 last year. Within 10 days, about 115,000 Mississippians placed their names on it. Telemarketers and debt-collection firms may not call those registered.

To do business in Mississippi, a telemarketer must register with the state, pay $800 annually to buy Mississippi's no-call list and post a bond to cover potential fines.

Mississippi telemarketers who phone no-call registrants are liable for a $5,000 fine for each illegal call. Nationwide telemarketers who violate Mississippi's no-call list can face an $11,000 per-call fine.

But telemarketers are testing innovative end-runs around the stringent policy.

BellSouth external affairs director Patsy Tolleson said that Bellsouth sells its customer lists to Nebraska-based Walter Karl Inc. The customer service firm then sells the information to telemarketers.

"It's up to Walter Karl to monitor those telemarketers and make sure that they don't violate no-call lists,'' Tolleson said. "BellSouth does not let any telemarketer sell a product by using BellSouth's name during a sales pitch.''

BellSouth does have a privacy agreement available for customers who do not want their names on any telemarketer's rolodex. Mississippi customers who want that option should call 1-888-757-6500. Tolleson said their is no way to make the request online.

Since Mississippi's no-call list unrolled last summer, Cochran says his agency has gotten 1,408 complaints "with sufficient information for us to conduct an investigation'' about telemarketing violations. He advises Mississippians to suffer through a recorded telemarketing call to get the caller's phone number.

"We need that to find the telemarketer who is in violation,'' Cochran said.

His investigators also need to know what time the call occurred and whether Caller ID was blocked.

"We wait a few days after we get a complaint to see if there is a trend, whether the violations are clustered in one region of Mississippi, because sometimes that can help us figure out where calls originate,'' Cochran said.

He conceded that some victims get too frustrated to fill out a form.

"Bless their hearts, they call and say, 'Nielsen, just stop these dadgum calls,''' he said.

Currently, he is negotiating with telemarketers who violated Mississippi law but are making a good faith effort to comply. Three companies were facing over $2.3 million in Mississippi fines by December of last year for no-call violations.

Cochran said that DirectTV is trying to work out a settlement after hearing it was liable for $500,000 in fines.

"DirectTV said that the company is structured so that individual offices do business under the DirectTV name without the main office being responsible for the personnel,'' Cochran said.

He made it clear that the company needs to ensure that personnel using the company name in Mississippi need to know the state's law.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)