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July 2008 : Area Code vs. Address

by Joseph Sanscrainte, an attorney with Bryan Cave, LLP, specializing in telemarketing law.

A wise man (ok, actually Buckaroo Bonzai) once said "No matter where you go, there you are." Seems like it would be hard to argue with a rock-solid truism like this, but think about it from the perspective of a telemarketer trying to contact a consumer - can a telemarketer count on a consumer being exactly where their database information says they should be?

The use of wireless phones, along with the advent of number portability in 2003, has blurred what was once a very clear connection between area code and associated geographic region in the United States. There is in fact, at this time, no guaranteed means by which a given telephone number can be associated or "tied" to a given geographic location in the United States.

Cell phones, by their very nature, enable a consumer to move across the United States, either temporarily (e.g., for travel) or permanently, without having to change the area code being used by the phone. At the same time, number portability allows consumers to transfer a landline number to a wireless device, with the same result in terms of transportation of the wireless device. Finally, according to at least one authoritative source, number portability would also allow consumers to port their landline number from one geographic location to another landline location. For example, a consumer living in California in a 415 area code could port his/her number to their new landline phone in New York City - persons who dial the 415 area code, expecting to be reaching a California number, would in fact be reaching New York City.

Simply put, the connection between "area code" and the anticipated location of a consumer being contacted at that area code is growing ever more tenuous. From a telemarketing perspective, this raises very serious questions with regard to the ability of marketers to reliably reach consumers within the proper time frame, as required under state and federal laws.

It is helpful to look at the issues associated with matching a given consumer's location and applicable calling time restrictions from two perspectives, based upon the type of telephone service being used by the consumer.

The first issue is landline specific - that is, consumers now have the ability to port a phone number from one location to another, independent of the standard area codes and exchanges historically reserved as per the mandates of the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) as administered by Neustar.

The second issue has to do with the nature of wireless service - the wireless device moves with the consumer and can, in fact, be "located" anywhere the consumer happens to be. Wireless device numbers do not therefore need to be ported in order for a consumer to make use of them from different geographic locations - the device simply keeps functioning independent of location. The ability to port numbers from landline to wireless services serves only to exacerbate the underlying area code v. time zone dilemma.

Current state and federal rules simply do not incorporate recognition of the problem posed by number portability in the context of either landline or wireless numbers. These rules view the location of the consumer from a static perspective - i.e., at any given time, the location of the consumer being called can be known by the entity making the call. This is currently not the case, and over time, this situation will worsen.

Compliance with calling time restrictions against the backdrop of wireless usage and number portability therefore becomes, in the absence of further action by legislators, a question of "best practices." Companies need to start taking a look at mis-matches between addresses and area codes in their lead lists (as well as VoIP and call-forwarding issues), and tailor their calling campaigns and policies to best fit state and federal calling time restrictions.

From the telemarketer's perspective, a consumer may or may not be where they appear to be (sorry about that, Buckaroo.) For any company looking to solve this problem, keep one thing in mind - the devil is in the details!

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