In the first major enforcement of federal "do-not-call" rules, regulators on Monday proposed fining AT&T; Corp. $780,000 for allegedly making sales calls to 29 people who had asked the long-distance giant to leave them alone.
The recommendation by the Federal Communications Commission was triggered by allegations that AT&T; violated rules that require companies to keep their own list of people who have asked not to be called with sales pitches.
A routine review by the FCC's staff unearthed more than 300 complaints in the last several months alleging do-not-call violations by AT&T.;
The FCC's enforcement action is based on federal regulations that have been in effect for months. It is separate from the do-not-call registry that took effect last month and is run by the Federal Trade Commission.
Nevertheless, the big fine represents a bid by the government to quickly send a message to the nation's telemarketers, who make more than 100 million unsolicited sales calls a day.
"Today's enforcement action demonstrates our resolve in the fight to protect consumers from unwanted and intrusive telephone calls," said Michael K. Powell, chairman of the FCC. "This puts telemarketers on notice that we will take all measures necessary to protect consumers who chose to be left alone in their homes."
AT&T; said it had not had a chance to study the FCC's allegations but pointed out that it had been cooperating with the agency during the last several months in hopes of reaching a resolution.
"We set a very high priority on respecting do-not-call requests and have even urged our customers to sign up for the FTC do-not-call list," the company said in a statement.
The hotly competitive telecommunications business has frequently had run-ins with consumers over phone solicitations. In April, for instance, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned an $80,000 fine imposed against AT&T; by the FCC for allegedly making unauthorized changes to consumers' long-distance telephone service.
The FCC said AT&T; did not get proper authorization from users to change their telephone service. But the court disagreed, saying the phone company did not have to guarantee that the consumer answering an AT&T; sales call was in fact authorized to make changes to that telephone line.
It is not known how many people have requested not to be contacted by specific companies. But fed-up Americans have registered 54.3 million phone numbers for the nationwide do-not-call list and have submitted 51,000 complaints against telemarketers who continue to call them, according to the FTC.
Telemarketers who call numbers on the registry face fines of as much as $11,000 per call.
A spokeswoman for the FTC said the agency was looking into the complaints and expected to start taking enforcement action against companies starting early next year.
But some analysts remained skeptical that the government was making any real headway against the most active and aggressive telemarketers, which include mom-and-pop home improvement services, credit card companies and newspaper subscription salespeople.
"Fundamentally, the FCC is just window dressing, but I think the government is hoping that it sends a signal that we are taking this seriously," said Rudy Baca, an analyst for the Precursor Group, a Washington, D.C., research group that follows telecommunications issues.