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Should debt collectors call your cell phone?

Have an unpaid debt? Hospitals, retail stores and financial institutions want to talk to you about it on your cell phone and are trying to eliminate the legal obstacles that keep them from doing so.

A trade organization made up of credit grantors and debt collectors is asking the feds to agree to allow collectors to reach you on your wireless phone using an automatic telephone dialing system.

Consumer advocates say that this is a violation of the law, as well as an invasion of privacy.

Clarifying the confusion
At issue is the Federal Communication Commission's 2003 interpretation of a rule that appears in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act was written in the early '90s to restrict telemarketers' use of automated or prerecorded calls. Consumers called for this law after being hounded by telemarketing calls.

In 2003, the FCC adopted a new rule to give consumers several options for avoiding those unwanted solicitations.

The rule says no person can initiate "any telephone call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using an automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice ... to any telephone number assigned to a paging service, cellular telephone service, specialized mobile radio service, or other radio common carrier service, or any service for which the called party is charged for the call."

In updating the rules, commissioners considered the steady rise in telemarketing calls and the growth of a new type of automatic dialer, the predictive dialer.

Predictive dialers automatically dial numbers and then transfer the calls to salespeople or agents if and when someone answers the phone. These are the devices usually responsible when you get a few moments of silence after answering the phone before a person comes on the line.

The FCC commissioners decided predictive dialers could be included in the statutory definition of automatic telephone dialing equipment.

The commission's ruling has members of ACA, the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals International, saying that they are confused and fearful of potential lawsuits.

The collectors and creditors insist that the purpose of their calls is not to advertise or solicit but only to complete a transaction. They say Congress did not mean to prevent creditors from recovering payments with this law, and in both 1992 and 1995 the commission stated that the rule did not apply to calls made on behalf of creditors recovering payments.

More than half of member agencies used predictive dialers last year, according to ACA.

ACA officials complain that the rule has been expanded and the commission's previous statements about calls made by or on behalf of creditors have been discarded.

Next: "They can dial your phone number manually."
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