FTC: stealth enforcement or no enforcement?

The Federal Trade Commission seems to ignore illegal faxes and mostly ignore spam

For the last few months I've been dutifully telling the Federal Trade Commission when I receive an unsolicited fax, but I've decided to stop because there seems to be no reason to keep doing so. I guess the FTC’s 1,087 or so "active employees" have better things to do than deal with this type of lawbreaker. (The FTC seems to be paying about the same level of attention to enforcing the very weak CAN-SPAM law — your tax dollars not at work.)

The FTC has a Web page where you can report receiving junk faxes and telemarketing. For reporting junk faxes, the process is easy — a few clicks, enter a bit of data, attach a scan of the fax and you are done. The Web site fails in one way or another about one in 10 times I try it, but I've now submitted quite a few reports. Each time I do so the FTC sends me, via paper mail, a copy of my report and some pages of boilerplate. I recycle the paper unopened because there is nothing I can do with the information in it. I wonder how many such letters they send out a year — and how many trees and tax dollars it cost to do so.

One type of fax that I've been getting all along is for inexpensive vacations from a "corporate travel department." I've received these for years and have called the opt-out number many times but the faxes keep coming — even after reporting a number of them through the FTC Web page.

This led me to wonder if the FTC was doing anything with these reports other than wasting my tax money sending me paper copies, so I looked at the news release section of the FTC Web site. I reviewed the releases since January 2007 looking for mention of faxes or spam. I did not find any about FTC action on unsolicited faxes and only one that seemed to be about someone specifically violating the CAN-SPAM act. (There were a few other releases about spam but they seemed to be about fraud by e-mail, not about the provisions of CAN-SPAM by itself.)

According to an online directory, the FTC has close to 1,100 active employees (and maybe some inactive ones). They do keep busy judging by the overall number of news releases issued — just not when it comes to dealing with lawbreakers in the fax and spam areas.

I can see that making any real progress against spam is near impossible when the basic law explicitly authorizes the sending of spam (see "Enforcing the permission-to-spam act". But how hard can it be to track down who is paying for a phone number listed on a junk fax and get the courts involved? Too hard, I guess.

The press release about the speech that the FTC chair gave on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the commission may have put it best: "No Substitute for the Agency's Own Sustained Efforts to Get Things Right." If they keep trying, they may actually figure out how to do their job right — but don’t hold your breath.

Disclaimer: Harvard tries anew with every student to "get things right" and often succeeds. But I have not heard any university opinion on the FTC's failure to do the same, so the above is my own opinion.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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