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June 29, 2003

Nice one. Impressed by the Bush administration’s much-ballyhooed establishment of a national do-not-call registry for telemarketers? Longtime software developer Jeffrey Kay points out a few things you probably didn’t hear in our national media’s adoring reports:
First, there’s no security on the process. Anyone can conceivably register a phone number on the list, whether it’s yours or not. You are asked for an e-mail address for confirmation, but there’s no correlation between e-mail addresses and phone numbers anywhere. Where’s the harm here, you ask? After all, we’re talking about the most evil of problems—telemarketing. Well, it turns out that anyone can just unregister a phone number also. It’s trivial to obtain an anonymous e-mail address through Yahoo or HotMail. If I want you back on my list, I’ll just unregister you and then call you. There’s no protection. It would be trivial to write a program that registered every phone number and equally trivial to unregister them.
Kay goes on to point out something even more impressive: that the law as written specifically exempts long-distance phone companies, airlines, banks and credit unions, and “the business of insurance, to the extent that it is regulated by state law.” Oh.

“When Americans are sitting down to dinner or a parent is reading to his or her child the last thing they need is a call from a stranger with a sales pitch,” said President Bush at a White House ceremony inaugurating the project. “So we are taking practical action to contrive a phony feel-good ‘solution’ that will get lots of good ink while inconveniencing our big contributors not at all.” [07:48 PM]

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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Nice one.:

Handsome ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 08:38 PM:

Wait. I'm confused. Dubya didn't really say that last part, did he? Because 'inconveniencing' seems like an out of character word for him. You made that up, right?

That's what I like: little things, hitting each other.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 08:39 PM:

I am so very sorry to say that I am not surprised.

Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 08:50 PM:

*Some* of the exceptions are for semi-reasonably beurocratic reasons -- different agencies regulate some of the industries, and the FTC doesn't have (or arguably doesn't have) the authority to regulate them. For at least some of the industry-based loopholes, the FCC has or is in the process of doing their bit to close the holes.

The "survey" hole, on the other hand, looks to me like a huge hole. I've been on the Oregon do-not-call list, which has a similar exception, for the past year; I'm now getting two to four 'survey' calls a week.

--k. ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 09:36 PM:

As someone who's toiled in the market research phone mines--

Not sales! Not sales! Not sales!

(Sorry. Even now, the old defensive reflexes kick in.)

But. As someone who's toiled etc. First: if it's a "survey" and not a real survey--if it's a thinly veiled sales pitch--then report them. That's illegal. Can't make a sales call without identifying it as such.

As to why surveys are exempted from "no-call" lists:

Surveys require random samplings of people. (Frequently using lists of randomly generated phone numbers.) --Sure, you may have targets to reach--so many people who live in such-and-such a county, say--but you need to have random access to as many people who potentially fit that category as possible. If people "opt out" of the surveying category via a no-call list, then it skews your sample, and the survey is that much less accurate. Which may not matter, you might think, to market research--but it also affects political research and academic research, also conducted over the phone, and cited nightly on the news in favor of this or that.

But the phone's getting to be untenable as a research device--largely because the overwhelming number of spam calls has made people rightfully suspicious of strange phone calls. Which is a shame; something of civility is lost when you become so immediately suspicious and hostile at a stranger's attempt to get your attention. --I don't know that untenable laws are the answer, though. Yes, there's a lot of gullible people out there to be preyed on, but for most of us it's dead simple: if you hear that tell-tale sea-shell sound of a phone bank, and the person on the other end is saying, "Can I speak to, uh, Kip, uh Mamley? Manley?" it's no trouble at all to say, "No, you may not," and hang up. (Assuming you don't want to be bothered, that is. Oh--that old trick where you say, "Just a moment," and you put the phone down? And walk off and leave it? If you want to give the dialler a moment to catch her breath, sure. But don't think you're fooling them for a minute.)

Anyway. A little civility, even with telemarketers, the scum of the scummiest, goes a long way to make the world itself more civil. (And gets you brownie points in heaven, too.) I had the loveliest little chat with Julia Child's personal assistant one afternoon, who was rather surprised when the randomly generated phone number I dialed turned out to be Child's private line. She didn't do the survey, no. Was quite firm about that. But very polite. (Then there was also the guy who said, right after I give him my pitch about not a sales call, totally confidential, just a few questions about your banking needs, "Sure. But I've got to warn you: I'm a carrot."

(Okay, I thought, whatever, maybe I misheard, and I launched into the first question: How many checking accounts does your household have?

("None," he said, quite promptly. "Carrots don't have checking accounts."

(I still giggle at that. Remembering that guy helped keep me sane through long dreary days in the phone mines.

(--Also, I'm oddly fond of the glass company hereabouts that will call randomly in the early evening, every couple of months or so: "Hello, this is Suchandsuch Glass Repair. Does your windshield have a crack or chip in it?"

("Nope," I say.

("Very well. Just checking. Have a nice evening." Click.

(Charming, really. --But I digress.)

Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 09:41 PM:

Evidently, after 9/2003, it'll take 3 months or so for the list to kick in once you sign up.

I suspect that'll mean new phone customers will experience 3 months of unrelenting telemarketer hell until they get on the list.

Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2003, 09:46 PM:

Well, I signed up with the National No-Call Registration (and so far I've gotten no less than three emails to finalize my application. Considering that the first one was supposed to do it, I'm betting there's a glitch in the system.), but I wouldn't expect it to bulletproof me. I'm also signed up on my state's no-call registry (and they required a form to be mailed in, and there was a charge), and I also use Caller ID. If it comes up as Unknown Number (or Private), I don't answer. Now, if you're a real person and leave a message, I'll call you back on my dime. But I wouldn't expect any system to completely block all annoying contact from the outside world. Well, ok, one, but I think he's currently employed by that Wooster chap.

Leslie Turek ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 12:12 AM:

There's an odd thing in the rules. Although certain types of businesses are exempt, telemarketing companies are NOT exempt, even if they are calling on behalf of a business that would be exempt. (Saw this on the donotcall FAQ page.)
In addition, in some cases where the call is otherwise exempt (soliciting charitable contributions and for companies you have a business relationship with), if you make a request to a specific organization that they not call you, they must honor the request or be subject to a fine. (It doesn't specify how you need to document that you asked them not to call you, like whether you need anything in writing...)

Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 04:42 AM:

I'm not sure that that bulk operations are that easy. The site does say

If you have more than three personal telephone numbers, you will have to go through the registration process more than once to register all of your numbers. There is a limit on the number of phone numbers you can register in this manner.
I assume this means they're limiting the number of operations per e-mail address. So after say 6 or 9, someone wanting to do a bulk remove would have to open up many e-mail addresses to do it, which would be awkward and/or leave a trail.

I did get three messages, but I was blocking three phone numbers.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 07:54 AM:

New York State's Do Not Call Registry works pretty well -- well enough that I hadn't planned to bother with the National Registry.

It also include a reporting number you can call to report violators, though I 've never used it.

The loophole? Companies with whom you have an "existing business relationship": we still get lots of calls from banks and credit card companies trying to sell us additional services.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 07:57 AM:

>I also use Caller ID. If it comes up as Unknown Number (or Private), I don't answer.

I would like to be able to do that with Caller ID. Unfortunately, Tor Books, where my spouse works, comes up as Unknown Number on Caller ID.

Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 09:08 AM:

Alan, I was registering three phone numbers. So far I have received nine emails, three for every phone number.

Kathryn, my deepest sympathies.

Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 09:56 AM:

Calls from other countries also come up as "unknown number", so ignoring them isn't an option for me.

Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 10:11 AM:

Gee, I never knew what advantage it would be to only have friends & family who live in my local calling area. Well, okay, I've got one bud who lives out of state, but his name & number always come up in Caller ID.

--k. ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 11:57 AM:

I get far more calls from companies I already have a relationship with than companies I don't. And it's those I find far more annoying--trying to get me to upgrade my service or sign up for some quasi-insurance scam. If I wanted that crap, I'd fill out the junk mail in the monthly bills and send it back, you know?

Daniel J. Boone ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 04:32 PM:

I find it's worth going to great lengths not to give a valid phone number to the companies I do business with. In some cases that's not possible, but when you move you can often avoid doing an update even there. And many, not all, web forms will accept a "declined" statement in the mandatory phone number box.

I have one student loan company who keeps sending me nastygrams insisting that "a federal regulation requires us to maintain a current phone number for you." No doubt it does, but until I see a regulation requiring me to provide such a phone number, or until my attention is drawn to the provision of my note wherein I promised to do so (I don't think it's in there, but my copy of the note is deep in storage) they are going to continue to be SOL.

Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 10:56 AM:

"Okay, here's my number. Ready? It's 555-..."

Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 11:48 PM:

On NPR today, the gubmint person they were speaking to mentioned that, if you get a call from someone with a 'prior business relationship' loophole, you can tell them not to call again and they have to comply. The request trumps the loophole.

I don't know if that applies as well to charities and pollsters.

MadJayhawk ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2003, 11:03 PM:

With every new program like this one there has to be a shakedown period to get the bugs and loopholes out of the system. Once this is up and running I imagine there will be significant adjustments made to it. If the public gives it a chance to work before badmouthing it into the ground before it even gets off the ground, we might wind up with a government program that actually benefits us. (It is hard to believe there are people so partisan that they use the introduction of a program that has the potential to make everyone's daily lives considerably better as an opportunity to take cheap political shots at the President.)

The registration process was about as straight forward as it could be for me.

If a third party has the system unregister you, it would be a simple matter for the system to send you an email telling you that you have been unregistered. To complete the unregistration process you would probably be required to electronically verify that you wish to be unregistered. Someone with a little real experience in systems development should have thought of a simple solution like this. Most serious websites already use similar systems to verify who you are.

I can't imagine that some basic safeguards haven't been built into the system, but then again they may be concentrating on getting the basic system off the ground and working before handling the all the possible glitches that are sure to happen. I am looking forward to seeing if it works.

Side Note: love that "I'm a carrot." thingy. The telemarketing callers, to me, are just ordinary, hardworking people, some with families to feed, trying to make a living. It is a tough job. I try to be polite and not waste their and my time. "Thanks, I am not interested. Goodbye." after their first line of patter usually does it.