WASHINGTON - The national do-not-call list, hampered by a weeklong legal struggle, went into effect Wednesday, with government officials still predicting a large decline in telemarketing calls to millions of registered phone numbers.
The seemingly simple service is at the center of a perplexing saga involving every branch of government. In the latest twist, federal officials scrambled a day before enforcement was to start to rework a system that handles complaints about telemarketers.
For now, officials are directing consumers who registered phone numbers on the list to send complaints to the Federal Communications Commission by visiting its Web site or calling 1-888-225-5322.
The list contains more than 50 million home and cell phone numbers. Companies could face thousands of dollars in fines each time they call a registered number.
Redirecting all complaints to the FCC was a last-minute change. The potential for more confusion remained, since outdated instructions for filing complaints were still on government phone messages and Web sites late Tuesday.
"It will just be a more cumbersome and difficult system than the system we designed," Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris told reporters Tuesday after testifying to a Senate committee. "This doesn't mean that consumers will be without protection."
Muris said the FTC is moving to stop accepting new numbers while a court fight with telemarketers plays out. Despite the legal wrangling, many of the largest telemarketers say they will abide by the list.
Consumers can expect a significant decrease in calls, "assuming telemarketers comply," Muris said. The FTC was blocked from operating and enforcing the list last week by a federal judge who said the program violates the free speech rights of telemarketers. Muris said the legal fight could stretch into next year.
The list was intended to block about 80 percent of telemarketing calls. Exemptions include calls from charities and pollsters and on behalf of politicians. A company also may call a person on the no-call list if that person has bought, leased or rented from the company within the past 18 months or has inquired about or applied for something during the past three months.
Recent legal challenges and the government's makeshift fixes to keep the list in business have left other holes in the registry's protections.
The do-not-call list requires telemarketers to pay for a copy of the list so they can know whom to avoid calling. Many telemarketers have the list, but some do not and cannot obtain it since the FTC shut down that aspect of the program on Sunday in response to the court rulings.
The FCC can only penalize those who have the list.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell said that while investigating complaints, the FCC would ask a telemarketing firm accused of a violation whether it had the list. "Lying to us is a dangerous thing," he said, noting that deceiving the agency could result in serious legal actions.
Some telemarketers say the legal confusion has their industry in turmoil, with many unsure about which numbers can and can't be called and what actions will result in penalties.
U.S. District Judge Edward W. Nottingham in Denver on Monday denied a request to suspend his decision blocking the FTC from running the list. He also warned the agency could face more legal action for using the FCC to skirt the order.
On Tuesday, the FTC asked the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to suspend Nottingham's ruling that blocked the agency from operating the list. Officials from 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico filed a brief with the court supporting the FTC.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee holding the hearing, bemoaned the uncertainties.
"A concept that to most people is as simple as `do not call me' has become tremendously complex," McCain said.