[Note: This column has generated a lot of letters, some of which contain helpful suggestions on how to deal with telemarketing calls. Check 'em out here.... ed.]

Telemarketing: My conspiracy theory

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, February 13, 2001 -- I've had it with telemarketing. That doesn't make me any different from 99% of Americans, I'm sure -- but lately, Kafalas.com world headquarters has been swamped with so many calls (several a day) that we've decided it's time to do something about it.

I'm sure most of you probably have caller-ID boxes attached to your telephones or have phones with integral caller-ID units. This has become a virtual necessity in recent years, if you want to avoid being interrupted several times a day to answer the phone and have someone waste your time (even if only a few seconds thereof). A few years ago, I tried turning off the ringer on my phone and just letting the answering machine take all my calls -- but people complained that I was hard to reach, or that I took too long to return their calls. And since Meg and I became a household unit back in 1995, the answering machine has become a thing of the past (she doesn't like them, for some reason, preferring the phone company's call-answering service).

Why do I want complete silence when a telemarketing call comes in? It's the principle of the thing. Telemarketers are one of the lowest forms of life on the planet, and they have no right to interrupt us for any reason.

When we first moved to Flagstaff, in October of '99, we got very few telemarketing calls for awhile. I na´vely thought, "Maybe Flag is in such a remote area that they don't bother calling people out here." I quickly learned how wrong I was -- within a few months, we started getting just as many junk calls as we used to get in suburban Chicago.

In Illinois, telemarketing calls used to show up as "Unavailable" on the caller-ID box. Here, they show up as "Out of Area." I've never received a telemarketing call that had an actual phone number -- they've always got the number blocked. This should be illegal, but it isn't. So we simply don't answer any calls from "Out of Area."

Well, it's reached the point where even that strategy isn't enough, because we get so many nuisance calls -- and because in the poorly-wired apartment in which we find ourselves (while awaiting the happy day when we can move into our new house -- which has to get built before that can happen), there often isn't a phone nearby (or the cordless phone needs a battery charge). I've gotten so fed up with running downstairs to answer the phone, only to see "Out of Area" on the caller-ID, that I just plain don't check it at all, most of the time.

This is not an ideal solution -- especially if someone's trying to reach us in an emergency. So I came up with a simple idea: "Why not look for a device that will intercept each incoming call and, if it shows up with a real caller-ID number, will put the call through; but if it shows up as `Out of Area,' will reject the call or let it go to the voice mail system?"

What could be easier?, I hear you asking. With Americans' boundless appetite for consumer-electronics gadgets, combined with our almost universal disgust with telemarketing, you'd think there would be dozens of products out there that would satisfy this simple requirement. Right?

Wrong. I've been combing the Web, Usenet, and technology mailing lists, trying to track down a phone, answering machine, caller-ID product, or other device that will simply screen out the "Out of Area" calls while letting everything else through. But I've come up empty.

The phone companies let the manufacturers know that their products are not to contain certain features. This is why such a simple feature as "Out of Area blocking" is not available in any product on the market.

There are all kinds of telephones out there, that do all kinds of things. There are programmable caller-ID boxes. There are talking caller-ID boxes. There are home PBX products. But as far as I've been able to discover, there is not a single product on the market that will do what I want.

The talking caller-ID box is a good start (and may end up being the product we go with -- but I'm getting ahead of myself). There are many caller-ID units out there that will announce, to the best of their speaking abilities, the identity of the calling party, so that you don't have to get up and walk over to the phone. In some cases, they let you program certain numbers with your own vocal announcements; in other cases, they may use a synthesized voice. By using such a device, while turning the phone ringer off, you can hear who's calling, then decide whether to pick up the phone, without having the phone keep ringing until your answering machine or the phone company's voice mail picks up the call. A typical talking caller-ID box costs around $80.00 -- not too bad.

Fine. But it still doesn't reject telemarketing calls out of hand. I've heard of one talking caller-ID box that lets you program a list of 75 phone numbers, and will stay silent if it gets a call from any number not on the list. But it doesn't let you say, "Let me know when we get a call from any valid number -- just stay silent on Out of Area calls."

Another -- more expensive, but still attractive -- product, suggested by a guy on the comp.home.automation Usenet newsgroup, is a "home PBX" that has an automated-attendant feature. The PBX plugs into the phone line in between the wall and the phone. This guy has his set up so that it picks up the incoming call and plays an outgoing message to the caller, which says, "You have reached the line for Joe Pipnyitski. If this is a telemarketing call, please hang up and do not call this number again. If you want to reach Joe, please press 0, and your call will be connected." My correspondent says that in the year or so that he's had the PBX, only one or two telemarketers have been stupid enough to press 0. For my money, this is a good solution -- unfortunately, it would be for a lot of my money: $289.95. Also, since the PBX picks up every incoming call, but does not function as an answering machine, it would necessitate adding a machine, for when we're not home. (Or, I suppose, we could turn off the PBX when leaving the house -- if we could remember to do that -- and let the phone company's voice mail system take the calls.)

Making lawyers, politicians, and journalists look good

Why, you might reasonably ask, am I insisting on complete silence when a telemarketing call comes in? What's wrong with simply hearing the talking caller-ID box say "Out of Area," and going back to whatever I'm doing? Well, it's not the magnitude of the interruption -- it's the principle of the thing. Telemarketers are one of the lowest forms of commercial life currently in existence -- their livelihood consists of preying upon people who are too polite or too gullible to hang up on them, and selling these people products they don't need or talking them out of their money, in any number of manipulative, unethical (not to mention out-and-out fraudulent) ways.

What's so awful about an interruption of a few seconds? Well, I might be meditating or recording music -- or practicing piano, or whatever. The point is that telemarketers have no right to interrupt us for any amount of time, for any reason.

In an ideal world, good old-fashioned government regulation would be the answer. Awhile back, I was hanging out with a group of friends, one of whom was a German visitor. On the subject of telemarketing, he had this to say: "What's the problem? In Germany, it is illegal to call a residential phone customer and try to sell them something." Unfortunately, in the U.S., industry lobbyists are so much stronger than consumer advocates that we'll never see such a law in this country.

The Trilateral Commission's latest scheme?

Anyway, so here's where my "conspiracy theory" comes in. Why is it that with all of the calling features the phone company dreams up -- call waiting, caller-ID, call answering, call-forwarding, three-way calling, call-this, call-that -- the one feature they don't give you is the ability to screen out telemarketers? They even offer "selective call blocking," which lets you reject calls from individuals who've turned off their caller ID. So why not allow blanket rejection of all anonymous calls?

This is an easy one: the phone company knows on which side its bread is buttered -- telemarketing firms are some of their biggest customers. Letting us block calls from them is obviously not an option.

OK -- obvious enough. But why haven't the consumer electronics companies introduced any products that would provide what's probably the Number One telephone wish-list item for most Americans -- telemarketer-blocking?

My theory is that there's an understanding between the phone companies and the consumer electronics manufacturers, which discourages the latter from making telemarketer-screening products. Sounds farfetched, but hear me out.

Many products -- including a lot of phones and caller-ID boxes -- are sold through local and long-distance phone companies. That used to be where everyone bought (or, back in the old days, rented) phones, and it's still a major source of equipment for a lot of phone customers. It stands to reason that the companies that manufacture these products don't want to do anything that might offend the phone companies. So the phone companies make sure the manufacturers know that their products are not to contain certain features. This is just about the only plausible explanation I can think of for why such a simple feature as "Out of Area blocking" is not available in any product currently on the market.

There are other possible explanations, but they don't make much sense to me. I wrote to a guy in Chicago who has a small electronics firm that makes a number of snazzy phone gadgets. I described my problem and asked if he had anything that would block all anonymous calls. His reply, and I quote:

Nobody is making [one] that I know of. Manufacturers have some concern that the police or doctors won't be able to get through in emergencies.

Who does this guy think he's kidding? How are the police, doctors, or anyone else supposed to reach people who are so fed up with telemarketing calls that they don't answer the phone at all? I think he's just been told by the phone companies, "Make a call-blocking product, and you'll never sell anything in this town again."

Much better than nothing

All is not lost, however. At around $80.00, the talking caller-ID unit, while it doesn't actually block "Out of Area" calls, may be a workable solution -- if you can program it to give a silent or extremely quiet announcement when an anonymous call comes in (while leaving the phone's ringer off), that's probably good enough, even for someone as cranky as I've become. The PBX would most likely do the trick; the only question is whether we can stomach its pricetag.

But in the meantime, I'll toss this issue out as an exercise for the reader: If you've found a product that will silence anonymous calls while ringing the phone when it gets a call from an identified number, please let me know!

Copyright © 2001 John J. Kafalas

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