For many of us, one of the best parts of having a cell phone is that it's private – we expect that any call that comes in is from someone we've specifically given our number out to. We like to keep control of our number because most of us pay for incoming calls and because we keep our cell phones with us all of the time.
Keeping your cell phone number private may be at stake, though, because the industry has said it will launch a new 411 directory database of cell phone numbers. And it's the cell phone companies themselves who are writing the rules for how and when your cell phone number will be made public.
The Industry's Plan
The industry has said that it won't include your number in the cell phone directory automatically. They say that consumers will have to "opt-in" to the cell phone directory – affirmatively state that they wish to be included. But many consumers may have already unknowingly signed up for the 411 directory when they first activated their service under terms and conditions buried in the fine print of many contracts.
The cell phone industry says it won't look to that language to decide who has asked to be in the directory, but that remains to be seen. They also say that the directory won't be published on paper--like telephone directories currently are. While these promises protect consumer privacy, the industry opposes legislation that will put those very same promises into law.
There's an email going around that has got a lot of people concerned and confused about the cell phone number directory. As with many "urban myths" some of it is true and some is not.
Yes, there is a directory planned. But it is not true that the cell phone industry has announced plans to turn the phone numbers over to telemarketers. It is illegal to make unsolicited calls with an auto-dialer to a cell phone today, and the directory does not change that. Even the telemarketing industry admits that.
The email goes on to suggest consumers list their cell numbers on the national Do Not Call list. There's nothing wrong with that suggestion. But talk of a deadline for listing your number is inaccurate. There's never a deadline for listing your wireless or wireline phone number on the Do Not Call List.
However, strong consumer reaction to that email is evidence that consumers are concerned about losing control of our cell phone numbers.
Congressional Action in 2004
In the 108th Congress (2003-2004), legislation was introduced to require cell phone companies to disclose in a user-friendly notice the upcoming directory and get opt-in, written permission from consumers to be included. Consumers Union provided written testimony (PDF) to House and Senate committees on the importance of enacting this legislation. The Senate Commerce Committee passed this legislation, including a strong pro-consumer amendment sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer of California. But it was never considered by the full Senate, nor did it pass the House of Representatives.
Legislation is needed to protect our numbers
Consumers Union supports legislation that includes:
- Requiring customers to give prior authorization before their number is included in a directory
- Prohibiting charging fees for unlisted numbers
- Prohibiting publishing the cell phone directory in paper or electronic form
States Step Up
States have not caved in to the opposition of the cell phone industry. California, Georgia, Minnesota, South Dakota and Connecticut has passed laws that require wireless carriers to get express consent before putting a cell number in the 411 directory and prohibits charging customers who choose to remain unlisted.
For More Information
Stay up to date on this issue. Consumers Union provides additional 411 directory details, including what consumers can do if they don't want to be included in it.