US telecoms giant AT&T could face a fine of $780,000 (€680,534; £465,449) for allegedly breaching telemarketing rules.

The Federal Communications Commission has given the group thirty days to respond to the accusations and the proposed penalty before the watchdog releases a final order.

The fine – a sign that US regulators plan to come down hard on illegal phone advertising – is the first major punishment for a telemarketer since the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission began enforcing the new nationwide do-not-call register last month [WAMN: 08-Oct-03].

However, the allegations against AT&T predate this scheme and relate to a set of older rules, under which consumers may request that a specific company be banned from contacting them.

The FCC says it received 360 complaints against the telecoms group between December 2002 and August this year. It has now charged AT&T for 78 calls to 29 consumers who had sought to prevent the firm from phoning them.

These company-specific regulations – introduced under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act – have been around for a decade, but this is the first time the FCC has sought to fine a telemarketer under their aegis. The regulator wants $10,000 for each of the 78 calls – the same amount it has claimed in cases involving unwanted faxes.

David Solomon, head of the FCC enforcement bureau, admitted that the charges against AT&T were part of a crackdown on unsolicited marketing calls following the launch of the new register. "We have made enforcement of the do-not-call lists our number one priority," he commented. "This demonstrates we're serious."

To which the American Teleservices Association retorted that if the FCC had bothered to enforce the old company-focused regulations in the first place, there might have been no need for the nationwide do-not-call scheme, which bans all telemarketers (save charities and politicians) from contacting names on the list.

"For a decade, they haven't done their job," blasted ATA president Tim Searcy. "Now they're adding new regulation."

The do-not-call register – against which telemarketing bodies are fighting a legal battle – has proved immensely popular with Americans, having attracted 54.3 million numbers to date. Some 51,000 complaints have already been made under the scheme.

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff