The Untold Story of Do-Not-Call Enforcement (aka Why Killing Do-Not-Call Can’t Come Fast Enough)

Earlier today, I posted on how one of the most significant aspects the anti-spam bill introduced on Friday was not reported or discussed in government briefing materials.  Namely, that buried at the very end of the 69-page bill, are provisions that lay the groundwork to kill the National Do-Not-Call list.  I noted that the proposed approach is very complicated, but boils down to the government repealing the provisions that establish and govern the do-not-call list.  In its place, the Electronic Commerce Protection Act approach of requiring an opt-in would apply, meaning that Canadians would no longer need to register their phone numbers on a do-not-call list.

My weekly technology law column (homepage version, Ottawa Citizen version, Toronto Star version) provides some reasons why that the change cannot come fast enough.  The column reports that while misuse of the do-not-call list remains a concern, a review of thousands of pages of internal government documents released under the Access to Information Act reveal that it is only the tip of the iceberg.  In addition to lax list distribution policies, the enforcement side of the do-not-call list raises serious alarm bells with the majority of complaints being dismissed as invalid without CRTC investigation, the appearance of a conflict of interest in sorting through complaints, and a regulator that has been content to issue to "warnings" rather than levying the tough penalties contained in the law.

The CRTC documents obtained under Access to Information include a list of companies that have downloaded the do-not-call list. Given the broad exceptions under the law, virtually no charities, survey companies, political parties, or newspapers have acquired it.  Instead, real estate agents, car dealers, financial advisors, and lawn care companies dominate the list of over one thousand organizations.  Many of those organizations are identifiable, yet there are also over a hundred provincial numbered companies for which little is known, as well as cryptic names such as “My broker office” or “Michele.” It is unclear whether the CRTC invoked further verification before granting access to unknown organizations.

The proliferation of the do-not-call list is certainly disconcerting, but picture that emerges about its enforcement is even more troubling.  The documents reveal that the CRTC receives over 20,000 telemarketing complaints each month, many involving the do-not-call list (some complaints may relate to other telecommunications rules that cover automated dialers or curfews). 

The initial evaluation of complaints is handled by Bell, which manages the do-not-call list, rather than the CRTC. Bell reviews each complaint and provides a prima facie evaluation of whether it is valid, invalid, or indeterminate (which require further investigation). Despite tens of thousands of complaints, very few have been categorized by Bell as a prima facie violation of the do-not-call list.  For example, in January, Bell reported that there were only 42 valid prima facie national do-not-call violations, while 3,033 national do-not-call complaints were ruled invalid (an unknown number of do-not-call complaints were treated as indeterminate). 

The situation was much the same in prior months.  In December 2008, Bell reported only 32 valid do-not-call complaints, while dismissing 2,748 complaints as invalid.  In November 2008, there were 44 valid complaints as opposed to 3,981 complaints dismissed as invalid.

Not only are the vast majority of do-not-call complaints dismissed as invalid without any further investigation, but a complete list of consumer complaints lodged on the CRTC's website reveals that a who's who of the Canadian business community has been the target of complaints. 

Alongside a steady of stream of complaints about vacation offers and duct cleaning, leading retailers such as the Bay and Zellers, financial institutions such as MBNA, telecommunications companies such as Rogers, Telus, and Bell, as well as newspapers and charities regularly appear on the complaints list.  Under the current system, this means that Bell adjudicates whether complaints about its own telemarketing practices (and those of its competitors) are prima facie valid or invalid, a procedure that raises obvious concerns about conflict of interest.

Complaints that survive Bell's initial round of scrutiny go to the CRTC for further investigation.  To date, the CRTC has sent out approximately 70 warning letters where it believes there are reasonable grounds to conclude that the organization is not in compliance with the do-not-call list legislation.  Recipients of the letters are asked to take "corrective action" to address the concerns and warned that failure to do so could lead to penalties of up to $15,000 per violation for corporations.  Notwithstanding that threat, the CRTC has yet to levy any fines.

Given the ongoing concerns around list misuse, enforcement, and overbroad exceptions that may be leading to the dismissal of the majority of complaints without further investigation, Industry Minister Tony Clement’s decision to open the door to the do-not-call reform is much needed.  The complicating factor is that the ECPA provisions related to the do-not-call list are exceptionally complicated and could be delayed for years. If the DNCL is to be fixed – as it should be – better to avoid delays and get on with the job.


  1. our government is the government of big business
    > If the DNCL is to be fixed – as it should be – better to avoid delays and get on with the job.

    It’s never gunna happen. Our government represents big business, not the people that elected it. Come to grips with that, admit to yourself that it’s true, and your life will be a lot less stressed.

    Oh, and don’t think that this is a problem with this particular incarnation of “our” government. It will be the same with the next government and the one after that and the one after that.

    It’s the electoral system that’s broken. As long as businesses are allowed to throw money into getting somebody elected, the elected will always be beholden to the big businesses.

  2. The Do-Not-Call list is a scam
    Since I added my name and phone number to the list, I have been pestered relentlessly by charities and survey firms, particularly at inopportune times. A few weeks ago, I let the caller have it after a particularly hard day of dealing with the side effects of my chemo. The woman at the other end immediately defended herself by saying that she was allowed to call because she wasn’t selling anything. I told her I considered it an invasion of privacy, that I had terminal cancer and didn’t need the added stress of answering unwanted calls. I told her to take my number off her calling list and to never call me again.

    I have not received another phone call since.

    The Do-Not-Call list is a scam. I don’t need people looking for money calling me at home. I give to charities of my choice by mail. I don’t want to answer personal questions for any survey firm whatsoever. Getting to the phone is not always easy for me with my chemo side effects and unwanted calls are an act of agression. I pay for the phone service to suit my needs, not the needs of some faceless organization.

  3. Brian, I’m not sure if you know this but Elections Canada prohibits corporate donations to political entities, and personal donations are limited to $1,100 per year. We are nothing like the states when it comes to election finance.

    Changes to the “Canada Elections Act” (as of January 01, 2007 I believe)

    “Corporations, trade unions, associations and groups can no longer make political contributions. However, your employer can give you a paid leave of absence during an election period to allow you to be a nomination contestant or a candidate without that leave being considered a contribution.”

  4. RobP, Oakville says:

    Michael – good article in the Star today. Another example of having the proper idea in mind but then not enforcing the rules.

    I do not know all the DNC regulations but one aspect I believe they do have in the USA that we do not seem to have in Canada is idea that the company hiring the Telemarketing firms are the ones being held responsible for the Fines.

    If any US based compeny hires an overseas firm to make calls into the US – the US company would be held liable. We could use something like that here. On a personal note – the one side effect of all these nusiance calls I answer at night – any one calling me will not be getting my business.

  5. Oracle
    I just started reporting the calls a few days ago….mainly because most of them are recorded and calling in from the US, so I press 1 to hear what they are offering and as soon as I say “do not call list”, they hang up abruptly. But I now have their name and number.

    BUT my main point is that the very first one I reported this weekend was FROM BELL……I switched years ago and everything in this house is Rogers, so there was no excuse he could use. However, he slightly panicked when I mentioned the DNC phrase and begged me not to report him. So I did….I am tired of the Bell itself trying to skirt the law. He said he was using an automated dialler, and upon checking, saw I was on that list. So I suggested he check before he calls next time.

    What’s that saying??? Fox guarding the hen house? LOL!! Get this out of Bell’s hands!!!!

  6. regular person says:

    would love to see
    I sure would love to see those access to information doc’s on wikileaks so we can all look at them.

    I would love to see the complaints filed and discarded.

  7. Jack Robinson says:

    DNCL… Or more mindfog from our Toxic Ottawa?
    While no Luddite, I’ve managed to survive, so far… the Zeitgeist assault upon both my land-wired privacy and Internet Bunker security without resorting to pulling the plug, as yet… utilizing common sense strategies of counter-Pavlovian ding-a-ling avoidance and open source, free-range computer bunker security alternatives.

    That our Cyborg Caesar’s government has trip-wired it’s token ‘nuisance’ legislation to actually benefit the scuzzy scamsters they pretend to disdain shouldn’t surprise anyone with functional synapses and a memory chip bigger than their tiny, sexy Smarty Pants phone.

  8. Jim Cassel says:

    No problem with the spam callers… enable legislation that will grant an “access fee” to my 3 telephone numbers…say $ 15,000 dollars down payment, for each phone number, payable to the number owner…plus say…15 dollars a call.

    They can burst a headpipe calling me…they will have paid the privilege of accessing my phone numbers.

  9. @Derik

    I wonder why then, our government always seems to be willing to bend us over to keep businesses happy. Something has to be going on there.

    Seriously… if government were there to represent us, the people, telemarketing would have been illegal years ago. Period. Full stop. _Nobody_ wants to be telemarketted to. Nobody.

  10. What a ridiculous waste of time using the webform to report complaints has been.

    Interesting its the Star who publishes M Geist’s column. They have received my instruction not to call through ioptout, but called anyway. They refuse to answer the simple question “do you honour do not call requests from ioptout” . They don’t answer anything on simple inquiry to their privacy email…it took an email “carpet bomb” to every available address to even get a response. But they just respond over and over offering to put me on their do not call list without addressing that I should already be there, or answering the ioptout question.

    So I’m one of the ones who reported the Star, using the “already requested do not call” and the few characters allowed to put in a comment to say “through ioptout” The CRTC says that is valid, and will be investigated. but it would appear bell just sees “newspaper” and rejects the complaint.

    Has anyone ticked off the box to receive a follow up to your complaint ever heard back?

  11. Minister Clement responds
    Back in January I posted here about Scotiabank telemarketing after I used, and their president’s office saying they would not honour any requests from ioptout. Eventually after contacting Scotia’s ombudsman, they changed their response to saying they would honour ioptout if the customer hadn’t previously given them consent to call.

    At the time I contacted the CRTC and Minister Clement. The CRTC initially called and said she had never heard of the CRTC chair saying ioptout was valid. After a follow up, the CRTC called again, agreeing their own rep was wrong, but offering that the only way to proceed was to use the complaint form (that M Geist has now reported rejects most of the complaints)

    Mr Clements office has now responded…4 months later, telling me to contact the CRTC, who has already told me they aren’t interested:

    On behalf of the Honourable Tony Clement, Minister of Industry, thank you for your e-mail regarding telemarketing calls. I regret the delay in replying to you.

    The National Do Not Call List (DNCL) was implemented effective

    September 30, 2008. To date, over 6.7 million telephone numbers have been registered with the National DNCL.

    The legislative provisions establishing the National DNCL do allow for certain exemptions where there is an existing business relationship. However, in these cases, the telemarketer is required to respect a request that the party not be called. In addition, the exempted party must maintain their own do not call list. If you believe that there has been a violation of these rules, I recommend that you contact the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission who is responsible for investigation and enforcement of the National DNCL by mail at Secretary General, CRTC, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0N2, or online at

    Once again, thank you for having taken the time to write on this important issue.

    Yours very truly,