Federal law offers a three-word statement to let people fend off unwanted solicitations from the telemarketing industry: “Do not call.”

That line is supposed to ensure that a telemarketer will stop calling that household. But some lawmakers want to go further in curtailing intrusive sales calls.

Also, the Federal Trade Commission is conducting a year-long review of its regulations amid a debate about how well consumers are being protected.

Big, Unenforceable Penalty

Both the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission require many companies to keep lists of people who ask not to be bothered again. Each call in violation of the FTC rule puts a business at risk of an $11,000 civil penalty.

Still, consumer advocates say the regulation needs more muscle.

“The rule is a joke,” said Bob Bulmash of Private Citizen, a consumer rights organization that works to limit junk calls and mail. Under the rule, private citizens cannot bring a civil action unless a telemarketer causes them $50,000 or more in actual damages.

The FTC also lacks jurisdiction to enforce its rules against several industries, including banks, federal savings and loans, long-distance phone companies, airlines, nonprofit organizations and certain insurance companies.

“Who else calls but these teleintruders?” Bulmash asked.

Technology Tricks

Regulators also are studying effects of new technologies such as “predictive dialers,” machines that automatically dial many different numbers in an effort to make telemarketing more efficient. Because the calls can connect before a telemarketer is available to make a pitch, people sometimes hear dead air or recorded hang-ups on answering machines.

People who use caller ID devices to screen or trace calls also complain that many telemarketers’ numbers do not show up. Without the name of a company or the number, the telemarketer’s target cannot follow up with a complaint on the suspicion that federal rules were violated, advocates and some consumers say.

“You cannot identify them. Even if you had a problem with them, you would not know where to find them,” said Albert LeQuang, who uses a caller ID box at home.

“There has got to be a process that will allow you to appeal to their supervisor if you are not happy about the approach they are taking,” said LeQuang, who manages mortgage credit policy at Freddie Mac in McLean, Va.

‘Do Not Call’ Lists Exist

The telemarketing industry says the rules are working. New regulations or laws constructed too broadly would interfere with the ability to do business and disseminate information, they contend.

Telemarketers note that people who do not want to be called can request that their names be added to a list kept by the Direct Marketing Association. Many companies voluntarily participate in this service and abide by the list.

Privacy groups advise that people clearly say the phrase: “Put me on your ‘do not call’ list.” They also can demand the telemarketer not call other numbers in the household.

The marketing association believes regulators should determine whether charitable or political organizations and other noncommercial groups that are exempt from the rule are to blame for consumer irritation.

“We don’t feel there is an adequate understanding of who is making the calls,” said Stephen Altobelli, the association’s director of public affairs. “The natural knee-jerk reaction is to impose more restrictions on commercial telemarketers.”

Dinnertime Ban Proposed

Lawmakers still are considering tougher rules. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., has introduced legislation to ban telemarketers from blocking their identity on caller ID boxes or from calling during dinner hours, defined as 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. local time.

Marketing companies say it would cost too much to redo their phone systems to ensure numbers are picked up by caller ID boxes.

Other consumer advocates have pushed for remedies such as a nationwide “do not call” list.

“What consumers are looking for is the opportunity to have one place to go to give the information that they don’t want calls at any time at home,” said Bill Gilles of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions.

States Take the Initiative

Some states already have statewide lists. Tennessee set up a list that takes effect Tuesday, and almost 380,000 homes have signed up, accounting for close to 18 percent of Tennessee’s 1.9 million residential telephones.

States with similar programs include Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, New York, Oregon and Texas. Some states charge consumers a few dollars per year to stay on the list.

In Arkansas, for example, consumers pay $10 to get their number on the list and $5 annually to keep it there. The Tennessee program imposes no fee.

The FTC is expected to give Congress its recommendations early next year on how the law should be amended.