Most Americans hate receiving unsolicited telemarketing calls. Inevitably, they seem to happen at the worst possible times — when you’re sitting down to dinner, tuning in to your favorite television show or drifting off to sleep. Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allows you to sign up for the Do Not Call (DNC) registry.

In general, this free service makes it illegal for telemarketers to contact you, but there are a number of exceptions and rules that must be followed. Here are 10 facts about the registry that you should know to protect yourself from unsolicited interruptions to your daily grind.

  1. The Purpose

The FTC created the national DNC Registry in January 2003 when it issued final amendments to the Telemarketing Sales Rule. It’s intended to provide consumers with a choice about whether to receive telemarketing calls at home.

The FTC’s biennial report about the DNC Registry for 2014-2015 reveals that more than 222 million people are currently using this free service. In general, unsolicited calls to people on this registry are illegal, unless the caller falls under one of the exemptions (see below).

There’s no deadline for adding your phone number to the DNC list. FTC rules require callers that aren’t exempt from the rules to stop telemarketing calls 30 days after you register a number.

Important note. Business-to-business calls are not covered under the DNC rules.

  1. Re-Registration

When the DNC list was created, registrations expired and consumers had to renew their listing every five years. However, that’s no longer the case. Now your number stays on the DNC registry until you cancel your registration or discontinue service.

If you move within the same geographic area and keep the same phone number, you probably won’t need to re-register with the FTC. Such “ported” numbers are removed from the DNC list only if both the address and name on the account change.

Important note. People who move and retain the same phone number may need to re-register if they also change names. For example, newlyweds who change their names and then move in together may want to verify that their phone numbers are still on the list.

  1. Fees for Business Access

Most legitimate companies don’t call consumers on the DNC registry. But some businesses intentionally sidestep the registry — or are unaware of the DNC rules.

Before calling a personal phone number, businesses are supposed to reference the DNC registry and remove registered numbers from their calling lists (unless the caller qualifies for an exemption).

The annual fee for businesses to access the registry is $60 per area code for 2015 and 2016. But the first five area codes are available for free to provide relief to smaller businesses and startups. The maximum annual fee for accessing the entire DNC list is $16,482 in 2015 and 2016. More than 23,000 organizations accessed the registry last year, including 2,504 businesses that paid more than $13.3 million to the FTC.

Failure to follow the DNC rules could result in consumer complaints, FTC investigations and fines of up to $16,000 per call. Wrongdoers also may be required to pay redress to injured consumers.

  1. Exemptions

Some organizations are exempt from the government’s DNC rules, including:

  • Charities or certain not-for-profit organizations,
  • Organizations engaged in political solicitations or surveys, or
  • Sellers or telemarketers that have an “established business relationship” or have obtained the express written agreement to call a customer on the DNC registry.

Last year, 521 exempt organizations voluntarily chose to access the registry to honor the wishes of people on the list. When exempt organizations make calls to phone numbers on the list, it can create “badwill” for the organization making the call. The FTC allows exempt organizations to access the DNC registry for free.

Important note. Because it’s a presidential election year, expect an unusually high volume of calls from political candidates and pollsters this summer and fall. Unfortunately, these callers generally qualify as exempt organizations, so there’s nothing you can do to prevent them from calling your home.

  1. “Existing Business Relationship” Exception

Telemarketers can legitimately call people on the DNC registry if they can prove an “established business relationship.” Relationships that meet this exception include:

Existing customers. Consumers who purchase, rent or lease goods or services from the specific seller (or engage in a financial transaction with the seller) within the 18 months immediately preceding the date of a telemarketing call.

Prospective customers. Consumers who inquire about or apply for a product or service offered by the specific seller within the three months immediately preceding the date of a telemarketing call.

In November 2015, the Telemarketing Sale Rule was amended to shift the burden of proving the existence of established business relationships to the seller.

Important note. This exemption does not apply if the person has asked to be on the seller’s entity-specific DNC list by telling the caller that he or she doesn’t want to receive telemarketing calls from the seller. Other types of exempt organizations, including charities, may not be required to keep an entity-specific DNC list, but many do as a courtesy to consumers.

  1. Related Party Rules

Does the established business relationship exception extend to related parties, such as affiliates or subsidiaries? That’s a gray area in the DNC rules, so the FTC looks at two primary factors to answer that question: 1) the degree of similarity between the products and services offered by the seller and its affiliate or subsidiary, and 2) the degree of similarity between the entities’ names. Greater similarity generally equates with greater likelihood that a call will fall within the scope of this exception.

In addition, affiliates and subsidiaries must maintain separate entity-specific DNC lists. Just requesting a company to put you on its DNC list doesn’t result in that request being extended to related parties. If an affiliate or a subsidiary calls, you will have to request to be placed on that company’s list, too.

  1. Lead Generators and Sweepstakes

Some companies try to exploit the established business relationship exception. For example, lead generators may try to find customers who are interested in a product or service through Web advertisements, free offers or cold calling campaigns. Then they may sell customer information to other companies who sell similar products and services.

Before using a list obtained from lead generators, businesses must access the DNC registry and remove registered numbers from their calling list. Under FTC rules, the lead generator might have a relationship with a consumer, but that relationship doesn’t automatically pass to the purchaser of the list of leads. The relationship transfers only if the consumer inquired about the offerings of the specific seller or the lead generator told the consumer to expect calls from the specific seller.

Likewise, some companies may try to use sweepstakes to demonstrate an established business relationship. But entry in a sweepstakes contest alone doesn’t allow companies to circumvent the DNC registry.

  1. Technology Issues

Technological advances have made telemarketing campaigns cheaper and easier to implement. Most telemarketers routinely use automatic telephone dialing systems or prerecorded messages (commonly referred to as “robocalls”), instead of calling consumers directly. In October 2013, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated the established business relationship exception that applied to prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential lines.

These technologies — along with equipment that allows callers to fake their identities on caller ID — make it harder for the FTC to find and prosecute scammers. The problems related to technology-driven DNC rule violations are pervasive. In 2015, the FTC received an average of more than 175,000 complaints about robocalls each month.

  1. FTC Contests

The FTC is working with industry groups, academic experts and other government agencies to encourage new technologies to combat illegal telemarketing calls. It’s even held contests to spur technological solutions from the private sector. A contest in 2012 led to the development of Nomorobo, a free service that’s helped stop over 65 million robocalls. Additional contests were held in 2014 and 2015.

  1. Getting Help

If you’d like to register your phone number for the DNC list or verify that your number is already included, visit the registry at www.donotcall.gov or call (888) 382-1222 from the phone number you’re registering.

If you receive an illegal call on a registered phone line, the FTC warns not to interact in any way. Don’t press buttons to be taken off the call list or to talk to a live person. Doing so could lead to more unwanted calls. Instead, hang up and file a complaint immediately. Complaints may be filed online, by phone or by mail with either the FTC or Federal Communications Commission (for illegal calls to cell phones).

Contact your legal or financial advisers for additional information about how these rules, as well as any applicable state DNC rules, affect you — or your business, if you sell products or services using telemarketing campaigns.

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