Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Phone Pests

Gosh, I'm popular.

I spend most of my time on the East Coast, but I'm out West now, and have routed my telephone calls here, where the day starts three hours later.  Every morning, some thoughtful person calls me between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.

Today I learned that I had won a cruise for two to the Bahamas.

Yesterday, Carmen from Card Services offered to fix credit problems I never knew I had.

The day before, it was someone from the Breast Cancer Association.

Last week, a real estate lady said she was "going to be in your neighborhood" and offered to do a market analysis of my home's value.

With friends like these, who needs an alarm clock?

Unwanted Phone Calls

The federal government set up the Do Not Call registry in 2003 to protect us from unwanted calls.  All we had to do was register our numbers, and all the callers had to do was request the list of our numbers.  Then, according to the plan, we would not be pestered again.

The registry has been an abject, utter, complete failure.

The FTC, which operates the registry and enforces violations, bragged in a press release recently that it had targeted 105 violations of registry protocols and collected settlements in 80 cases since 2010.

I have news for the FTC.  I've received more pesky calls since January than the FTC has resolved in the last four years.

If Congress wants to save a few million bucks on the next federal budget, it could defund the Do Not Call Registry.  I'm pretty sure nobody would notice the difference.  

The Most Recent Prosecution

To be sure, the FTC's most recent enforcement action was a good one.  It prosecuted a boiler room operation that phoned senior citizens, sold them "fraud protection" and "pharmacy benefit" products and then used the seniors' information to siphon money out of their bank accounts. The scam had been operating since 2010 and collected at least $11 million.

But think about it:  The Do Not Call Registry didn't figure in this matter: It was a straight-up con game and prosecuted, appropriately, as theft and fraud.

(Plus, what is it with senior citizens?  Does the human brain suddenly turn to mush on its 65th birthday and become unable to recognize sleazy financial scams?  The older I get, the more I worry about these things.)

My Telephone Friends

Most of the calls that I receive these days are robocalls.  Sometimes I push through in order to demand that my number be taken off the caller's list; usually the person at the other end hangs up before I can get the words out.

But there was a different variation recently.

     Me: "Please take me off your phone list."

     Caller:  "Okay, give me your phone number."

     Me:  "What do you think I am -- crazy?"

     Caller:  "A computer generates all our numbers."

People Who Can Phone You Up 

There are some people who are allowed by law to bug you by phone.

     -- Companies with which you have done business or that you owe money:  Fair enough.

     -- Charities:  That's why you get so many calls every year from your friends at the police benevolent association and anti-disease groups.
      I don't give these people money.  This type of fund-raising is inefficient; most of what is collected is spent staffing the phone banks.

     -- Political campaigns:  Every candidate for political office in my region puts out a long pre-election campaign call saying why s/he deserves my vote.  My impulse is to vote against these people just on principle, but sometimes they are candidates I favor.  What to do?

     -- People conducting surveys:  Some people are flattered to be asked for their opinions on cable companies or banking products or political issues.  Me, not so much.

What to Do

At least two companies offer products to block calls -- Privacy Star, an app for Androids and Iphones, and Nomorobo to block voice-over-internet.

A woman I know has put an answer message on her land-line phone: It requests that unsolicited callers remove her number from their databases.  She stopped answering her phone, and she says the message has significantly reduced the number of robocalls she gets.

I think I'm going to do this myself. But every time you call me, you'll have to wait for me to call you back.

My Idea

This may be unworkable, but I like to think big.  I think several things should happen.

1) Phone carriers should refuse to connect calls coming from unidentifiable phone lines.  Robocallers have become skilled at pretending to originate traffic from phone lines that are not in service.  Can't that be stopped?

2) People who answer phone calls from unwanted callers should be able to signal their unwillingness to receive calls from marketers they have not contacted.  Maybe they could hit a special phone button:  I suggest the number "7."

3) Every time the number 7 button is pushed, the irritating caller should be required to transfer two cents to the billing account of the phone line that has been called.

Seriously: We buy phone service for our convenience, not to make ourselves available to people who want money.  We want to receive dinner invitations from friends.  We want to know if a relative has been in a car accident and taken to the hospital.  We want to hear from the school district if classes have been cancelled because of snow.

The rest of these people, if they really want to reach us, should have to pay a little something.  Call it a marketing expense.

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