Most people have experienced it—that annoying ring of the phone just as dinner goes on the table. When you answer, you find it's not a call from a friend or family member, or even from work. It's someone calling to sell you something—a telemarketer.

How do telemarketers get my telephone number?

There are several ways telemarketers get your number:

  • If you are listed in the phone book, they simply may have looked in the White Pages.
  • Several companies compile national phone directories, available in CD-ROM and computer databases. These are gathered from local phone books all over the country.
  • The phone company and other businesses also publish directories which list people by street address or phone number rather than name. Telemarketers frequently use these "street address directories" when they want to call specific neighborhoods. If you are listed in the phone book, you are almost certainly in street address directories, also referred to as "reverse directories."
  • Another way telemarketers obtain your phone number is when you inadvertently give it to them. If you sign up for a contest or drawing, a phone number is usually requested. Such give-away promotions may have less to do with gifts than they do with obtaining your number for sales pitches. If you have your phone number printed on your checks, your name, address and phone number can easily be copied and entered into computerized mailing/phone lists.
  • Automatic dialing devices are able to determine all possible phone number combinations, even unlisted numbers, and dial them much more rapidly than any person can.
  • "800", "888" and "900" numbers are another way for telemarketers to obtain your phone number. When you call these numbers, your phone number may be captured with a system called "Automatic Number Identification" or ANI. ANI uses equipment which automatically identifies and stores the number from which you are dialing. By matching your phone number with other computerized lists and street address directories, your name and address can often be discovered and added to marketers' databases. Not only will the company that captured your number be able to use it, they may sell it to other marketers.

How Can I Stop Sales Calls?

It is difficult to completely eliminate sales phone calls. However, you can dramatically decrease the number of calls you receive by taking the following steps:

  • Sign up for the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) Telephone Preference Service (TPS) to have your phone number added to the DMA's "don't call" list. The major nationwide telemarketers participate in this service. Send your name, address and phone number, including your area code, to: Telephone Preference Service, Direct Marketing Assoc., P.O. Box 9014, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014. The TPS will help reduce sales calls but will not eliminate them entirely. Participation by telemarketers is voluntary. In addition, the TPS does not stop calls made by automatic or random dialers.
  • FTC has Do Not Call Registry. You can register by calling 1-888-382-1222 from the number you wish to register.
  • When you are contacted by telemarketers, tell them to put you on their "don't call" list. Federal law requires them to maintain and honor such lists. (47 CFR 64.1200; 16 CFR 310).
  • Screen your calls with an answering machine.
  • Get an unlisted phone number. There are advantages to being listed in the phone book. But if you are tired of being called by telemarketers, having an unlisted number can decrease the volume of calls considerably. Phone companies usually charge a monthly fee for unlisted numbers. To request an unlisted number, call your phone company's business office.
  • Your local phone company may offer some "custom calling services" like Caller ID and Call Block which can be used to limit unsolicited calls. Some private companies also sell special equipment that blocks unwanted calls.
  • Call the phone company's business office and request that your listing be removed from the phone company's street address directory. Also, write or call the major companies that compile street address directories and request that your listing be removed (you should give your name, address and ZIP code):

    Haines & Company, Inc., Criss-Cross Directory, Attn: Director of Data Processing, 8050 Freedom Ave. N.W., North Canton, OH 44720. Phone number: (800) 562-8262. Send a letter requesting that your name be removed. Haines only accepts such requests in writing.

    R. L. Polk & Co., Attn: List Suppression Files, 26955 Northwestern Highway, South Field, MI 48034. Phone number: (810) 728-7000.
  • Be aware of ways that you inadvertently release your number. Don't have your phone number printed on your checks. Consider providing your work number when you must give a number. Be sure the requestor has a reasonable need to obtain your number.
  • When calling an "800", "888" or "900" number, tell the representative that you do not want your name, address and phone number rented or sold to others. Also request that they do not call you in the future.

Are there any laws about telemarketing?

Yes, both state and federal laws regulate telephone solicitations.

Federal Laws

There are three major federal laws that regulate telemarketing. They somewhat overlap. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) focuses on the use of telephone lines, and is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). (47 USC 227; 47 CFR 64.1200) The Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud Abuse Prevention Act deals with scams, and is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (15 USC 6101-6108; 16 CFR 310) and Telemarketing & Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention (15 USC Chapter 87).

Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA)

"Do not call" Lists
The TCPA requires telemarketers to take you off their list if you ask them to do so. Further, telemarketers must have a written policy for maintaining do not call lists, available upon demand. (47 CFR 64.1200) If you have received more than one call by or on behalf of the same company in one year, after you have told the company to place your name on the "do not call list," you can:

Sue the telemarketer in state court (usually small claims court is recommended) to stop such calls and/or to recover a penalty. The penalty is actual monetary loss or up to $500, whichever is greater, for each call received after you requested to be placed on the "do not call" list. If the court finds that the marketer willfully or knowingly broke the law, the penalty is up to three times the actual monetary loss or up to $1,500, whichever is greater. The penalty for violations with respect to automatic dialing systems, prerecorded messages and facsimile machines, is $500 or actual damages, whichever is greater. The penalty for willful or knowing violations is $1,500 or three times the actual damages.

File a complaint with the FCC and request that it take enforcement action against the telemarketer.

Request that the Attorney General in your state file a suit against the telemarketer. If the Attorney General receives several complaints against the same telemarketer, it may take action against the telemarketer.

Calls by or on behalf of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations are not required to comply with the "do not call" list requirements. (47 CFR 64.1200) The "do not call" list requirements also do not apply to marketers calling businesses.

Privacy tip: If you want to take action against a company that continues to call, send a certified letter, return receipt requested, demanding to be placed on the "do not call" list. Keep a copy of the letter and the return receipt as proof. Also, keep a log of all calls.

Restricted Hours
Telemarketers can only make calls to residences between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. unless they have your prior express consent or if you have an established business relationship. (64 CFR 64.1200)

Fax machines
A telemarketer cannot use a fax machine, computer or other device to send an unsolicited ad to a fax machine unless the receiving party has given prior express consent. Any message sent by fax must clearly mark the following in the margins at the top or bottom of each transmitted page of the message or the first page of each transmission: the date and time it is sent; the sender; and the phone number (not a 900 number) of the sender or of the sending machine. Fax machines manufactured on or after Dec. 20, 1992, must clearly mark this information on the first page or on each page of the transmission. (47 USC 227) Fax modem boards manufactured on or after Dec. 13, 1995, must also follow these requirements. (47 CFR 68.318)

Recorded Messages and Automatic Dialing Devices
Under the TCPA, a telemarketer cannot place a call to a residence using a prerecorded message unless the called party consents or the call is for emergency purposes. Calls with prerecorded messages are allowed when they are for noncommercial purposes; from someone with whom you have a prior business relationship; from a tax-exempt nonprofit organization; or when they do not include an unsolicited ad.

Autodialed and/or prerecorded messages to emergency numbers, hospitals, cellular telephones, pagers, or any service for which the called party is charged for the call are prohibited. However, they are allowed in emergencies or if the person called has given their prior express consent.

Finally, prerecorded messages are required to state the identity of the business, individual or other entity making the call at the beginning of the message. The telemarketer must provide its address or telephone number (other than a 900 number or the number of the autodialer or prerecorded message player). Any prerecorded call made using an autodialer must release your line within five seconds after you have hung up. (47 USC 227)

The Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud Abuse Prevention Act

"Do not call" lists
The Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud Abuse Prevention Act also makes it illegal for a telemarketer to call you after you have requested not to be called. And it requires telemarketers to keep "do not call" lists. (16 CFR 310.4) You can sue telemarketers who violate this law. However, it is more difficult to sue under this law than under the TCPA. You can only sue in federal court and must show damages greater than $50,000. If you cannot sue the telemarketer, contact the Attorney General's office or FTC. They are also given the right to sue telemarketers for violations of this law. "Do not call" requirements do not apply to nonprofit organizations. But they do apply to for-profit telemarketing companies providing services for nonprofit organizations if those telemarketers sell goods and services as part of the call.

Restricted Hours
Telemarketers may only call residences between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. unless they have the prior express consent of the person called.

Telemarketers must promptly make certain disclosures including: that it is a sales call; what they are selling; and the identity of the seller. If the call is for a prize promotion, they must tell you that no purchase or payment is required to win a prize or participate in a prize promotion. (16 CFR 310.4) Before the customer pays, the telemarketer must disclose the total costs of the goods, any restriction on getting or using them and whether all sales are final or non-refundable. If the call is for a prize promotion, they must tell you the odds for winning, that no purchase or payment is required to win, and all material costs or conditions to receive the prize. (16 CFR 310.3)

No Misrepresentation
Telemarketers cannot misrepresent any information including the total cost and the quality of any goods or services. In addition, telemarketers may not make false or misleading statements to persuade you to purchase any goods or services. (16 CFR 310.3)

Checking Accounts
Telemarketers cannot obtain or withdraw money from your checking, savings or similar accounts without your express verifiable authorization. (16 CFR 310.3)

Other Laws

Automatic Number Identification. Federal law places restrictions on the use and sale of your phone number when you call an 800 or 900 number. When you call these numbers, your phone number could be captured by Automatic Number Identification (ANI). According to regulations issued by the Federal Communications Commission, a caller's consent is required before a company can reuse or sell ANI information. However, a company may reuse ANI information to market a product or service that is directly related to the product or service the caller previously purchased. (47 CFR 64.1602)

How can I Discourage Telemarketers?

Tell the telemarketer to put you on their "do not call" list. Be sure to keep a log of every time you ask to be put on a company's "do not call" list. Ask for a copy of their written policy for maintaining "do not call" lists. We have also found it effective to say, "I never buy anything over the phone. Please take me off your list." By emphasizing that as a matter of principle you never make a purchase when contacted by phone, many telemarketers will remove you from their list.

In Indiana register on the Attorney General's Telephone Privacy List.

For more information

To obtain information on whether a specific telemarketing company is registered in California, write or call: California Office of the Attorney General, Consumer Law Section, 300 S. Spring Street, 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90013. Phone number: (213) 897-2631.

Complaints about telemarketers may be made to:

  • Federal Communications Commission, Informal Complaints and Public Inquiries Branch, Enforcement Division, Common Carrier Bureau, Mail Stop 1600A2, Washington, D.C. 20554. Phone number: (888) CALL-FCC.
  • Federal Trade Commission, Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. Phone number: (202) 326-3128. You can also call your local FTC office.

Complaints about Automatic Number Identification may be made to:

  • Federal Communications Commission, 2025 M Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20544.

For a "stop the calls" telemarketing kit, send $3 to: Center for the Study of Commercialism, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W., #300, Washington D.C. 20009. Phone number: (202) 332-9110, ext. 393. The kit contains information, tips and forms to keep track of "do not call" requests. It also provides advice on taking your complaint to small claims court.

For a $20 annual fee, Private Citizen, a nonprofit organization, will list you in its "do not call" Private Citizen Directory which is distributed twice a year to over 1,400 telemarketing firms. Call (800) CUT-JUNK.

Junkbusters. This web service offers assistance in reducing the number of telemarketing calls you receive.

To report fraud and/or to request information on fraud, contact the National Fraud Information Center at (800) 876-7060.

Note: The links on this page that go to web sites outside of this agency's control are provided as a convenience only. The Department takes no responsibility for their content.