Friday, April 2, 2010

Junk Phone Calls and the Battle to be Let Alone

I'll probably be the last person in Atlanta to have a land-line phone.  I've had the same number since it was DRake 3 instead of 373.  That's more than 40 years.

Over those forty years, I've fought a battle of wits and technology to keep my phone free for my friends and neighbors, and to keep it free of junk phone calls of all sorts.  The Federal do-not-call list has helped, although the politicians exempted themselves and certain others.  Grrrr...  Laws regulating automated phone calls with recorded messages have also helped.  But, as with the do-not-call list, there are exceptions.  There's also very little enforcement.  Some companies simply ignore the law.

A somewhat newer threat is the predictive dialer.  It's a computer system that uses statistical models to predict how many calls are likely to be answered at a given time.  It also uses statistics to try to predict when human "agents" will be available to be connected to an auto-dialed call.  The idea is that the computer dials calls and detects when a call is answered.  It then connects that call to an agent, thereby getting around laws against recorded announcements and keeping the agents busy talking instead of dialing.

So, if you get a call and say something like, "Hello? Bob Brown speaking," and there's silence, then a click, then someone saying, "May I speak to Bob Brown?" you've been called by a predictive dialer.  The "agent" never heard you identify yourself because he or she wasn't connected until after you answered.  (Hilton Hotels is infamous for this.  They think the time of their telemarketing agents is more valuable than the time of their guests.  Remember that the next time you need a hotel!)

There's an even worse evil in predictive dialers: hang-up calls.  The financial imperative in a predictive dialer operation is to keep the agents busy.  So, the machinery is adjusted to place more calls than there are agents to answer them.  What happens when the computer has an answer but no agent to put on the line?  You guessed it in one!  The computer hangs up in your ear.  There's a Federal regulation that says they can't "abandon" more than 2% of dialed calls, but guess what... there's no way to measure that from the outside looking in, and so that regulation is even more likely to be ignored than others.

If you're getting a lot of "hang-up calls," it's more likely predictive dialers than someone deliberately trying to harass you.  Grrrrr...

There are even more legitimate wrong numbers than there used to be.  Fifty years ago, the phone company assigned telephone numbers carefully, and in a way that meant a single mis-dialed digit was more likely to reach a fast busy signal than a wrong number.  (That fast busy is called a reorder tone by the phone company, and unassigned numbers, called "vacant numbers," were connected to the reorder tone.)

Now we're so short of phone numbers that almost all available numbers are in use.  It got so bad that we kicked Mexico out of the North American Numbering Plan in 1991.  Area code 706, which used to be northwest Mexico, is now assigned to Georgia, roughly north of the fall line.  So, even with the same number of mistakes in dialing, there are more wrong numbers because there are more numbers in use.

The last source of annoying calls I want to gripe about is debt collectors.  I pay my bills on time, but I also have a very common name, and debt collectors troll through the phone listings, hoping to hit upon the person they're looking for.  So, I get calls for Richard Brown and Rachael Brown and Roger Brown and Rosa Brown.  Not to mention calls for the innumerable other Robert Browns who might be behind on a bill or two.  AAaarrgghh!

I had a non-published number for a long time, which kept it out of the hands of trolling debt collectors.  When the economy went down the tubes, Georgia began to furlough college teachers, and I gave up the non-published number to save a few bucks each month.  Big mistake!  As soon as my name appeared in the book, I started getting more junk calls.  (It's non-published again, but it'll take years to undo the damage done by letting it be listed.)

What to do?  What to do?

Well, the first line of defense is that non-published number.  That'll keep you off a bunch of lists and stop the debt-collector trolls in their tracks.  Do not believe you can become anonymous by using just an initial or two.  Listing myself as "Brown, R." got me calls for Rosa and Roger and Richard and Rachael.  Unless your name is Theophilus McNulty (yes, I actually did know someone of that name) you probably want to keep it out of the phone book.  Maybe even if it is Theophilus McNulty.

Next, get anonymous call rejection from the phone company.  That'll intercept calls that don't send caller ID at all.  Your phone will never ring.  (No, I don't own stock in AT&T, but maybe I should buy some!)

That's about all the phone company can do for you.  Now it's time for self-help.  I have a few old telephones; they're not true antiques, they work on modern phone lines, but I like showing them off.  Some years ago I bought a little phone system (Panasonic KX-TA824) to supply dial tone to my old phones.  When my answering machine died, I bought an inexpensive Panasonic voice mail system.  (This was before budget cuts and furloughs.)  It turns out that you can make these gadgets do automated attendant and custom call handling based on caller ID.

So, now my friends (if I've programmed in their numbers) hear, "Please wait a moment" and my phone rings.  Others hear, "If you know the extension number you wish to reach..."  Of course, there aren't any extension numbers in Emory Cottage, but the message concludes, "Otherwise, please press two."  Any human being can get through to me by pressing two.  Automated calling systems are defeated.  Some predictive dialers are defeated, too.  Those that detect a recording just hang up.  As for the others, often by the time they connect a human, the "please press two" has already passed.  I've wasted their time and my phone never rang.  Good!

That was the good news about caller ID.  There's some bad news, too. Any company big enough to need 23 or more phone lines can get a "primary rate interface" circuit from the phone company.  If you have a PRI, you, not the phone company, decide what will be sent for caller ID.  Legally, it has to be a number that you control.  But, a collection agency in New York can get a cheap Atlanta cell phone and legally send a 404 number in the caller ID, making it look like a local call.  And, as with the other laws pertaining to bothersome phone calls, not everyone bothers to obey the law.

The bill collector types are serious about trying to find out whether "R. Brown" is the Rudy Brown they're looking for.  They'll have a real person on the line who will press two, and they'll send you bogus caller ID information to try to trick you into answering.  About the best you can do is note the number and try to block future calls.

The phone company's call block service often doesn't work because it won't block out-of-area calls, and the phone company knows the "real" phone number, not what's sent as caller ID.  Just telling them to buzz off doesn't work (although the law says it should) because, for each call, they're looking for a different R. Brown deadbeat and hoping it's me.  Aha! My little phone system gadget can do tricks with caller ID.  I've now programmed in the (mostly bogus) caller ID numbers of the most egregious callers.  They get a message telling them their calls will not be connected because of misleading caller ID information, and that the best way to reach me is through a letter to my home address.  The thought is that someone who really needs to reach me will actually have my home address, and if it's important enough, will drop a stamp to get in touch.  The dweeb who's looking for Raymond Brown is frustrated and looks elsewhere.  I hope.

That's the current state of the battle, and at the moment I'm winning.  I'm sure the turkeys who want to interrupt my dinner will come up with some new way do do it and I'll have to come up with a new defense.

One last thing... you can do some call screening like I've described without buying the kind of phone gear I bought for another purpose.  Type "call screener" into Google for a look at the possibilities.  And, either list your full name in the phone book or have a non-published number.  Listing just an initial will get you those bill collector calls.