June 26, 2003 - Posted at: 5:14 p.m. CDT
WASHINGTON - Striking back against telemarketers for countless interrupted meals, the public poured an avalanche of discontent into the new national do-not-call list Friday, registering more than 735,000 phone numbers on the first day.
"They're a real pain in the neck," said Helen McKenna, 75, a retired writer from San Diego. "They don't mind if they interrupt your supper. Sometimes they call when I'm asleep."
McKenna tried to register for the free government service intended to block most telemarketing calls, but she couldn't access the program's Web site at www.donotcall.gov.
The Internet site responded slowly on the first day because of "extraordinary amounts of traffic," the Federal Trade Commission said. The FTC, which launched the registry soon after midnight, said that at noon the Web site was being visited 1,000 times every second. The agency scrambled to add more computer equipment to handle the load.
Even more consumers registered by calling the toll-free number 1-888-382-1222, which is available in states west of the Mississippi River, including Minnesota and Louisiana. To ensure the system can handle the volume of calls, the number will not operate nationwide until July 7.
Slightly more than half of the phone numbers registered by Friday afternoon were done by phone, a system that ran smoothly, the FTC said.
"We expected a huge response and we've gotten it," said FTC spokeswoman Cathy MacFarlane. "Consumers need to remember there's no urgency in registering. The registry has just opened and will continue to stay open."
At a White House ceremony to inaugurate the registry, President Bush sympathized with people annoyed by unwanted calls.
"When Americans are sitting down to dinner or a parent is reading to his or her child, the last thing that they need is a call from a stranger with a sales pitch," Bush said.
People who sign up this summer should see a decrease in telemarketing calls after the FTC begins enforcing the list on Oct. 1. The service will block about 80 percent of the calls, the FTC said.
On the Web site, consumers provide the numbers they want protected and an e-mail address to receive a confirmation message. The site also lets them verify that a number is registered or remove a number.
Consumers calling the toll-free number must call from the telephone number they want registered.
The commission expects up to 60 million phone numbers to be registered in the first year.
Registrations will have to be renewed every five years.
Telemarketers attempt up to 104 million calls every day, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
The industry has said the registry will devastate their business and has sued the FTC, saying the program amounts to an unlawful restriction on free speech.
McKenna, the retired writer, said she doesn't feel sorry for telemarketers and will try again to sign up to block them.
"Why feel any sympathy for them, taking part in something that annoys people?" she said. "That's the last job in the world that I'd take. I'd rather clean toilets than to do that to people."
Of the states with do-not-call lists, 13 plan to add their lists of 8.1 million numbers to the national registry this summer, three have legislation pending to allow them to share, and 11 will not share the information, the FTC said. Consumers on state lists added to the national one need not register again.
Beginning in September, telemarketers will have to check the list every three months to see who doesn't want to be called. Those who call listed people could be fined up to $11,000 for each violation. Consumers would file complaints to an automated phone or online system.
Exemptions from the list include calls from charities, pollsters and on behalf of politicians. Registered consumers also can give written permission to get calls from certain companies.
A company also may call someone on the no-call list if that person has bought, leased or rented from the company within the past 18 months. Telemarketers also may call people if they have inquired about or applied for something from the company during the past three months.
Consumers can avoid those calls by asking to be put on an individual company's do-not-call list.
On the Internet:
Do Not Call site: http://donotcall.gov
Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov/donotcall
Federal Communications Commission: http://www.fcc.gov
Direct Marketing Association: http://www.the-dma.org