Critics wary of bill clarifying fax ad rules

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Opponents of measure say it could cause deluge of junk transmissions

Charleston Daily Mail (West Virginia)

WASHINGTON – A bill moving through Congress designed to clarify rules for advertising via fax machines could expose consumers to a flood of unwanted solicitations, according to consumer groups and activists battling against junk faxes.

In late July, the Junk Fax Prevention Act was passed by the full House and the Senate Commerce Committee, and it is awaiting a Senate floor vote. The bill mirrors current law by banning unsolicited faxes, but makes explicit an exception for companies that have “established business relationships” with consumers or other businesses.

Under that exception, consumers who once purchased a product, or even sought information, from a company could be sent faxed promotions even if they had expressed no interest in future transactions or had not provided their fax number. The relationship could be at least five years old, but no more than seven, under the bill’s terms.

Several business groups sought the language to make it clear that the limits on faxes were not intended to bar routine commercial dealings or prevent stores from alerting longtime customers of sales and other offers.

But opponents said the exception is too broad and potentially allows people to fax more than they do now.

“This should be called the Junk Fax Promotion Act, not prevention act,” said Robert Biggerstaff, a retired computer engineer in South Carolina who has sued fax marketers and administers a Web site that documents all U.S. court cases on the topic.

Biggerstaff estimates that 2 billion faxes are sent every year, and that the legislation could allow for twice that number.

Technology has enabled a proliferation of junk faxes, because computers can be harnessed to send faxes by randomly dialing area phone numbers without incurring long-distance charges. This has led to the growth of companies providing “blast fax” services.

In a nightmare scenario envisioned by consumer advocates, a popular national retailer could decide to send out fax blasts to hundreds of thousands of randomly dialed numbers, or to lists of fax numbers purchased from marketing firms.

Because so many people shop at this retailer, the blast faxes would reach many people with whom the giant retailer could claim an existing relationship, said Lawrence Markey, staff attorney for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

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