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Bell fined $1.3-million for violating do not call rules

As the CRTC ratchets up its response to the widely loathed practice of telemarketing, it has hit Bell Canada with a record-setting $1.3-million penalty for calls that violated the National Do Not Call List.

It is the largest penalty the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has ever issued for violating its telemarketing regulations. On Friday, it issued a $500,000 penalty to Xentel DM, a telemarketing company that was abusing an exemption granted to charities. The CRTC has been flooded with hundreds of thousands of complaints about these types of calls, which often interrupt dinner conversations with unwanted sales pitches.

"Bell recognized that it was quite a serious series of violations," said Andrea Rosen, the regulator's chief enforcement officer for telecommunications.

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Bell also donated $266,000 to Concordia University after the regulator raised concerns about automated solicitations – or "robo-calls"– that Bell was sending to its own wireless customers without their consent asking if they wanted to "top up" their prepaid wireless plans. Vancouver-based wireless giant Telus donated $200,000 to Carleton University after making the same types of calls, although, like Bell, it does not consider that particular practice to violate any rules.

The CRTC recently began to conduct investigations more promptly so that it can issue forceful decisions. The regulator's top officials have also been pushing for more power to penalize telecom service providers to ensure quick compliance with the sector's numerous rules.

Since the Do Not Call List was set up in 2008, almost nine million phone numbers have been registered. Once a number has been registered for 31 days, telemarketers are not supposed to call it.

The CRTC has received about 300,000 complaints from those fed up with unsolicited calls. But it wasn't until a few months ago that the CRTC streamlined the way it handles its investigations, going to companies earlier on in the process for more information so that a settlement can be negotiated quicker.

"We adopted a new series of tools in the last few months that cut down on investigative time," said Ms. Rosen, noting the regulator was choosing to negotiate more settlements, and also issuing citations as warnings to those who may not know they violated the rules.

Bell co-operated with the CRTC during the course of the investigation, acknowledging that its third-party telemarketers had not only violated the regulator's Do Not Call List, but Bell's own internal list of Canadians who told the company they did not want to receive any calls.

Colin Rogers, a fourth-year Ryerson University student who studies privacy issues and has conducted fraud investigations for a risk analysis firm, was on the CRTC's list and Bell's internal list. Despite that, and two formal complaints to both the CRTC and Bell, he received a intense barrage of dinner-time calls from agents working on behalf of Bell over a six-week period earlier this year.

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"I said if the calls keep coming, I'm going to make a complaint. The calls kept coming," said Mr. Rogers, 28, who lives in Toronto. "Civility became difficult."

The calls stretched out over several months, but died off toward early summer after he continually demanded to be passed to the callers' supervisors to complain.

On Monday, Bell said it had terminated contracts with two telemarketing companies and suspended "several others" as a result of the investigation. Like Telus, Bell pledged to stiffen guidelines for telemarketing practices.

The regulator has long been criticized by companies for taking too long to act on complaints, some of which can result in large financial losses; and by consumers for being too soft on powerful publicly traded telecom firms such as Bell while focusing most of its tough enforcement actions on smaller companies.

"For all the people who were criticizing the toothlessness of the Do Not Call List, who said they had been fooling around with all these roofing companies and duct-cleaning companies and not collecting" penalties, the recent actions represent roughly "$2-million that goes straight to the Receiver General [of Canada]. The commission, when given the power, will act in accordance with the will of Parliament and protect consumers," said Toronto-based telecom consultant Mark Goldberg.

The chair of the CRTC, Konrad von Finckenstein, has frequently expressed frustration with the inability of his agency to enforce its own rules. He said being allowed to levy "administrative monetary penalties" is "really the only way" for the regulator effectively to police wireless, Internet and television distribution businesses in Canada.

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Allowing the CRTC to levy financial penalties beyond the Do Not Call List and the federal government's new anti-spam legislation would require changes to legislation.

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