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Recorded telemarketing calls without written permission now illegal

You soon may be hearing a lot fewer of those maddening pre-recorded telephone pitches for everything from car insurance to debt consolidation services.

Starting Tuesday, telemarketers will need written permission from consumers in advance in order to solicit them through automated pre-recorded telemarketing messages, sometimes called robo-calls, the Federal Trade Commission said.

Even people who have not signed up for the federal Do Not Call registry, as well as those who have done business in the past with the solicitors, now are protected from unwanted automatic calls. But be warned: You still may get calls from traditional live telemarketers, unless you put your name on state or federal Do Not Call lists.

Consumer advocates called the action a huge change to the national Telemarketing Sales Rule. "We don't anticipate a lot of consumers writing to robo-callers and saying 'Please call me,' " said Bob Williams, a spokesman in Consumer Union's Washington D.C. office.

Commission officials said the agency had targeted robo-calling because the practice seemed to particularly annoy consumers, as there was no way for them to complain to an operator. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs had 4,102 complaints about pre-recorded telemarketing in 2007 and 2008.

"People were telling us they found robo-calls even more harassing and disturbing than calls from a live person," said Lois Greisman, the FTC manager for telemarketing enforcement.

The Sept. 1 change completes the phase-in of 2008 amendments to the federal telemarketing rule. The first part, which into effect Dec. 1, required telemarketers to tell consumers how to avoid receiving future messages and to provide an automated opt-out mechanism activated by voice or telephone key pad.

Exactly how the new rule will affect Floridians is uncertain.

Florida banned automated solicitations under most circumstances years ago, state officials said. But robo-callers can make sales pitches to their prior customers under state law, something the federal regulation prohibits.

Greisman said it's unclear which position would supersede. She urged residents who think they have received an illegal telemarketing call to contact the FTC at 877-382-4357 or go to www.ftc.gov. Florida Consumer Affairs also takes complaints about telemarketers: Call 800-435-7352 or go to www.800helpfla.com.

The Direct Marketing Association had argued that telemarketers should be allowed to make automated calls to previous customers. Jerry Cerasale, the association's senior vice president of government affairs, said recorded messages had been a "cost effective means" to offer goods and services.

Floridians also may continue hearing those electronic promotions because the new federal rule has exemptions, most dovetailing with Florida's law. Both allow automated political solicitations, informational calls about things like flight delays and school closings, debt collection, calls from banks or wireless companies, or charitable solicitations.

No goods or services, however, can be offered. So while a debt collection company could call about getting a payment, it could not then try to sell you a debt consolidation plan.

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