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Akst: For whom the cell tolls

That was close.

Rachel from Cardholder Services just called. She said there’s no problem with my account, but I needed to press 1 immediately because …

What? Rachel called you too?

I hate telemarketing, and I think I speak for many when I say that registering phones with the national Do-Not-Call service – in theory a great guardian of privacy – has been disappointing.
Rachel calls me at home frequently, but I’ve gotten used to that. What really irritated me is that her most recent call was to my cellphone.

I decided to investigate, because estimates are that a third of America now relies solely on cellphones for telephony, and the number is expected to swell to half within a few years.

Maybe I’m going crazy, but isn’t telemarketing to cellphones illegal?

The FCC says so. “Rest assured that placing telemarketing calls to wireless phones is – and always has been – illegal in most cases,” its website said last year. “It is unlawful for any person to make any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with express prior consent) using any automatic telephone dialing system or any artificial or prerecorded voice message to any telephone number assigned to a paging service, mobile telephone service or any service for which the called party is charged for the call. This prohibition applies regardless of whether the number is listed on the national Do-Not-Call list.”

In February, the FCC approved new rules to further limit automatically dialed or prerecorded “robocalls” and automated text messages. CNN (among others) reported the story. The new rules seem to focus on landlines but include cell phones.

Under the new rules, telemarketers must get permission in writing before placing an automated call to consumers. Previously, companies that had an established business relationship with a particular consumer (bitter translation: any contact, ever, no matter how flimsy, is a “business relationship”) could call them without permission.

Information calls, such as school closings and flight cancellations, are an exception and can be made to landline phones without written permission. Texts and calls to cellphones are subject to stricter rules, but cell users can easily opt in.

The new rules supposedly also let consumers easily prevent future calls.

“Each and every telemarketing robocall will have to include an automated, interactive opt-out mechanism, so that a consumer can revoke consent by pressing just a few keys during the call,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement in February.

Yet last month, the Pew Research Center reported that 68 percent of cellphone owners receive unwanted sales or marketing calls, and 25 percent of cell owners encounter this problem at least a few times a week. Nearly 70 percent of texters say they get unwanted spam or texts; of those, 25 percent face problems with spam/unwanted texts at least weekly., a website I usually find to be helpful, cruelly teased me with “How to Stop Telemarketing Calls to Your Mobile Phone.” The article described an app called PrivacyStar that purports to help stop unwanted telemarketing and report complaints to the FTC. Its only other suggestion was to register your phone (call 1-888-382-1222 or visit

And depressingly, as the New York Times noted in May, “There are exceptions to the registry and robocalls that, unfortunately, most of us know all too well. These include political organizations and charities.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University.
You can reach him at

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