Saturday, February 21, 2009

It Started With Telemarketers

Canada recently instituted a nationwide do-not-call list for telemarketers. Apparently the US Congress recommended such a thing fifteen years ago, but the final decision was to have individual telemarketers maintain their own do-not-call lists. That is fairly stupid, because there are so many companies that you'd never get on all the lists before one company folded and reemerged as another, quite possibly using its old do-not-call list as its new list of hot prospects.

Canada's new do-not-call list is equally stupid. There's a website you can go to in order to register your number(s) as do-not-call and any Canadian telemarketing company or foreign company making calls on behalf of a Canadian corporation is supposed to check their list against the registered do not call numbers and not call them. They can be fined $1500 for calling me anyway, so it sounds like something with teeth, but it disregards the fact the telemarketing is a scummy industry, and it's implemented in a stupid way.

Instead of being required to submit their call lists to be checked and pruned against a master list, the companies are required to buy the master list. That's right, telemarketing companies can buy a list of every Canadian who has asked not to be called by telemarketers. And the way the system works, the larger the company, the more they have to pay for the list. So of course what has happened is that little tiny companies open for the sole purpose of buying the list for cheap, and then selling it offshore where they can call me with impunity.

I got a call today, one of those machines calling. It told me that a friend had entered my name at the Bay or Zellers and that I had won a trip to Costa Rica. Now the Bay and Zellers are Canadian companies, and my friends are smart enough not to enter me in dubious contests, so I knew this was not above board. I pressed 1 to talk to a customer service representative. He had an impenetrable accent, so I couldn't understand his name, nor the name of the company calling when I asked for it. I think he may have made it deliberately unintelligible because when I asked him to spell it, he said for more information he would have to transfer me. Transferring is good, because the higher up the chain of command you get, the more of a nuisance you are able to be. In order to transfer me he wanted to know my name. I told him I wasn't giving him my name because he called me and therefore the onus was on him. He said he had to have my name to transfer me, so I told him sarcastically it was Jane Smith. He either didn't or chose not to recognize that as a default generic name and accepted it, but then wanted to know if I had more than $5000 in credit card debt. I told him I didn't give out that kind of information, just to transfer me please. He tried a few more times to get me to tell him. I told him the answer was Mu. He insisted on a yes or a no, and when I made it clear I wasn't giving it out, he hung up on me.

Scumbucket telemarketing company. This sort of thing is bad for my blood pressure or something, I'm sure. The *69 call told me that the call was from 616-980-2643 which is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their service provider is named Lucre but the company name is ex-directory. Michigan has do-not-call laws protecting Michigan consumers, but what can I do about it? Global telecommunications is such that every single country in the world would have to be signatory to a global death-to-telemarketers pact before do-not-call registries are of any use whatsoever. I can't screen my calls by number, because I get calls from all over and who knows when some pilot friend is calling from a hotel or an FBO in Grand Rapids telling me they are coming north and can I meet for lunch? And screening by always letting the machine pick up also causes you to miss important calls from people who want to talk to you now or not at all. I could solve this with technology, but it's not just about telemarketing.

While I was still fuming about this, a story came on the radio about a chemical plant in Canada that had been sold to someone in Edmonton who just walked away from the responsibility of the plant when the economy took a nosedive. No payroll no forwarding address no nothing. Because I live in a modern, responsible country, the government stepped in with an emergency order asking the workers to stay at work and make sure that the plant didn't just explode, or pump hazardous chemicals into the environment or become the incubation ground for a new Batman villain, or whatever happens to untended chemical plants. I'm not sure anyone knows. The government then tried to track down the owner of the company and apparently the trail ends in Slovenia.

That's the way the world is these days. I'm horrified to think of what is happening in countries with lesser ability to step in and deal with this kind of situation. A Canadian company could just walk away from responsibility in Zaïre and who is going to be able to do anything or even know? Someone knows, and with today's global communication I'm sure I could find dozens of such cases documented by concerned individuals, but how is anyone to distinguish real should-be-crimes from made-up stuff posted on the loony websites of whacko sky-is-falling nutjobs? And even if the whole world knows, who can prosecute or hold to account a numbered Uzbekistani company with investors listing addresses in Slovenia, Paraguay and Delaware? For countries that have environmental regulations, it would be possible to require, as part of the initial environmental permitting process for new facilities, the posting of a bond sufficient to safely close down production and clean up the area in the event of abandonment or catastrophe, but that would be a large amount, and the savvy investor would just build the facility in a jurisdiction with a more short-sighted desperation for jobs.

Anything that happens in the world affects the whole world these days. The working conditions and pay at your job may be cantilevered by unions and government regulations, but ultimately in the global economy it is dependent on what the most desperate person will accept. And that person can be anywhere in the world. We can't just fix our own countries. We have to fix the whole world to get this to work. How do you fix the whole world? Historically, the spread of law has followed conquering armies. I don't think conquering the world for freedom from telemarketers is the way to go here. More optimistically, manufacturing and environmental standards also spread by economic pressure. The kids who grew up in the Cold War had it good. They knew they'd be wiped out by the Bomb. Me, I can't figure out which worldwide disaster to be concerned about.

The telemarketing part had a happy ending. I called the Bay's customer service and they efficiently transferred me to a customer service rep who knew about the usurpation of the company's name and assured me that their loss prevention department was working with the relevant authorities to stop the telemarketers, who apparently were also fraudsters. I assume they are going to nuke them from orbit, so if you live in Grand Rapids, you should probably go out of town for the weekend. And if you comment on this blog entry, do take into account that the official Posterperson for Readers of Aviatrix's Blog is employed in the telemarketing business, so any comments demonizing all telemarketers will not be taken well.


Marc C. said...

Aviatrix, the US version is a government list backed up by possible fines for companies that do not abide.

nec Timide said...

Like all these sorts of endeavours, they will keep trying until a significant fraction of the population learns reputable companies don't work that way. Then they will move onto the next scheme. The one bright spot is that more people seem to be catching on more quickly than ever before. When I get calls from unknown numbers, I can usually Google them and find out what the scam is before the phone stops ringing. That's an idea for a blackberry app, catch the in coming number and present the page.

Anonymous said...

One way to screen by machine without missing urgent calls is to use a greeting message that tells the caller what you are doing, i.e.:

"I am by the phone but screen my calls to avoid telephone harassment. If you need to speak to me now, say the word 'urgent' at the tone and I'll pick up."

You can get much fancier if you have the tech skills, money, and patience to implement a software PBX on a spare computer. With a scheme like this, the computer would answer incoming calls with an IQ test: 'press zero now.' The call be diverted to your phone only if the caller was human enough to press zero when prompted. Consider it a captcha for telemarketers and robocalls.

P.S. would you mind posting a high res version of the cloud photo you're using for your profile pic? It looks like it'd make nice wallpaper.

Anonymous said...

I live in Grand Rapids and have never heard of Lucre. But yes, telemarketers suck!

Anonymous said...

An ex-telemarketer once told me the longer you stay on the line listening to a sales pitch, the more likely you are to be called on subsequent products. I now instantly hang up the second I'm sure it's a telemarketing call. Embarrassingly though, I have hung up on dentist receptionist trying to remind me of my appointment...

Why isn't there a computer application that screens incoming calls as someone else mentioned. Known numbers go right through or are treated according to a preset preference. Others can be handled by requiring the person to state the first name of the person they want to talk to. Or something... Why can't the computers work for meeeeee in this?

Aviatrix said...

Marc Côté: thank you for that very easy to use website. My US cellphone has just become a telemarketing target. I must have used it to register for something I shouldn't have.

telemarketersbegone!: Interesting. I was recently joking about having a machine that would answer the phone and beep through to the real person, and then try and waste their time, on the theory that while they are talking to my computer, they aren't bothering someone else.

Duey: I'm sure they hide in an unmarked building.

jinksto said...

The easy way out:
If it's a automated call, hang up.
If it's a person on the other end then immediately interrupt them and say, "Ma'am (or Sir) this is a business phone." In three years of doing this they invariably either immediately apologize or simply hang up.

Anonymous said...


Take a look at
Asterisk if you're interested in computer-based call screening. It's GPL open source.

Pitfalls: Asterisk doesn't run on Windows (Linux/BSD only), requires a a fair bit of competence with Linux, and will require hardware interfaces to connect to phone lines and phones.

pixelante said...


If I recall correctly, regulations prohibit telemarketers from calling US cell phones.

Next time you receive a telemarketing call, advise them it's a cell phone. They should end the call quickly and remove the number from their database.

Ward said...

I've noticed two things about many of the telemarketing calls I get: if you wait 2 rings, they seem to hang up. Or, if you pick up and say hello and no-one replies for a couple of seconds, you can safely hang up.

Machine calls I hang up on, and if I get a person on the line I say no very quickly. At my last job, I had lots of sales people legitimately calling me to sell me stuff, so I got very good at saying "sorry, not interested" and hanging up. It's not rude to stop someone from using up your time when you don't want them to.

I don't know if this is the chemical plant story you're talking about - BC government having to take over a pulp mill because if you just turn the power off and walk away you get a toxic nightmare.

The guy that bought the mill and walked away is actually from Alberta, but it looks like he's trying to get out of the responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the worst of US practices crossing the northern border.

One thing to keep in mind is that *69 or caller ID data can be and are regularly fudged. Apparently these organizations have significant enough funding to pay for phone systems that allow this, apparently not in violation of US laws.

I've also noticed that some friends' home phone lines (don't know if/when the cell companies will ever do this) have a feature that requires the display of caller ID. If I've instructed the phone company to automatically block my caller ID, the service that some friends have (again, through the local, wired phone service) will unblock my caller ID for that one call if I "press 1". The friend will then see and recognize my caller ID and pick up. Presumably the rest are dumped into the telephonic ether.

Subsequent calls to those friends' numbers, when proceeded with *82, will allow my caller ID to show up for that call only, allowing it to go right through.

Best of luck in your work to end this global plague.


Unknown said...

UK has "telephone Preference Service"
AFAIK, It's for landlines only, but it's very effective. register by phone or write 9not sure about E-mail)

Virtually all junk calls stop dead. the odd miscreant is told "I subscribe to TPS you should not be calling"...effusive apology and they hang-up....not sure if the sanction is the men in macs and pulled-down trilbies,or they get unplugged from the system....but it works and is free.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad Aviatrix' US phone will be guarded by the full force of the United States Government .. in 30 days or so.

Poor telemarketers. No one appreciates their calls. I knew someone in the industry years ago ( ran a call center ) and he was always so embarrassed to tell people what he did for a living. Just imagine, there is a job that pays less well than commercial aviation, and it has to be much less fun.

Global economy and worker exploitation, environment despoiling... Yes, I've been veering toward protectionism and "buy American" logic in self defense. For instance, I have nothing against the Chinese people, but despise what their government is doing to it's people and to the people of Tibet. Do you know how hard it is to find clothing that is not made in China these days?

Interesting view of work 'round the world on my favorite eclectic photo site: (see "world of work" in The Big Picture

Anonymous said...

So often these calls come at teatime... heck, that's MY time!!

But I'm like Ward... when I realise it's a telemaketer, I just say "No thank you" and hang up: that not only saves MY time, but the telemarketer doesn't waste their time, and can move on and annoy someone else.

If you're in a bad mood, start the conversation, then just place the phone down (not hang up) and walk away... leaving them to talk to nothingness for a while :-)


dpierce said...

I always say, "Oh, hey -- hold on a second." Then I set the handset down on the desk and go back to what I was doing.

Aluwings said...

@sarah and all (Do you know how hard it is to find clothing that is not made in China these days?)

Look for the documentary, Manufactured Landscapes ... thought provoking...

Aviatrix said...

I got frustrated trying to buy an answering machine that wasn't made in China, and toyed with the idea of trying to buy nothing made in China for a year. There's a book out called, I think, "Not Made in China" about a family that tried to do that for a year. I paged through some of it in a bookstore. It was far more difficult than I had guessed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pointer, aluwings. I looked at some excerpts, and it reminds me of an updated "Koyaanisqatsi". ( Phillip Glass makes great film score music btw. )

When I see actual workers, it makes me more ambivalent about a full-on Chinese boycott. They're real people just trying to make a living too. But my opinion of China's government definitely affects my buying choice. When given one, I prefer to buy as local as possible, which of course would include Canada.

Callsign Echo said...

Ah, you all are so fortunate to have a friend in the business. Here are my tips:

1. Don't give your number to businesses.
2. Don't give your number to businesses.
3. Don't give your number to businesses. I don't care if they say they will sacrifice their first born on an altar before they would sell your number. Don't give your number to businesses! They are lying, or they've found a way around it or they are going to use it to spam you themselves.
4. Don't give your number to businesses. They will indeed add you to the DNC (Do not call) list if you so request, and then reactivate it as soon as you interact with the business in any way. That is considered "opting in." You DO NOT have to say "I opt in to your spammy phone calls. They decide what is opting in and what isn't.

5. Don't give your number to businesses. If they say "It's just so we can..." They mean it's so they can telemarket to you.

6. Don't give your number to businesses. Once they get it, THEY NEVER REMOVE IT FROM THEIR LISTS.


Callsign Echo said...

Just for the record, I am not technically a telemarketer, since I am not selling things directly. Thus we get around anything blocking sales calls AND THAT IS ANOTHER WAY THEY GET YOU.

Anonymous said...

We have a do not call list in Australia, but after I signed up all my numbers, I swear I got more calls than before. If you tell any of the callers (the ones that speak english outside of their scripts anyway) that you're on the do not call list, they just tell you they have an exemption for some reason. I just ended up getting an unlisted "silent" number that costs me an extra $3.95 a month, that seems to have fixed the problem!