Using fear to sell new Caller ID? Hang it up, C&P


December 16, 1990|By ROGER SIMON

If a stranger came up to you on the street and asked for your home phone number, would you give it to him?

Of course you wouldn't. You're not that dumb.

You know that your home phone number is a private thing. And you know that if a person has your phone number, he can find out where you live.

So you wouldn't give out your phone number to just anyone.

Unless the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. gets its way. In which case, your phone number will be public property every time you place a call.

For more than a year now, C&P has been pushing something called Caller ID. This is a box that hooks to your phone and reveals the number of anyone who calls you.

The box costs $60 to $80, plus $6.50 to $8.50 per month. C&P could have sold the device as just another electronic gimmick, but probably wouldn't have sold enough of them that way.

So instead, C&P sold Caller ID through fear.

The phone company ran a very frightening and persuasive TV commercial in which a woman -- home alone, in her bathrobe -- is harassed by a menacing caller.

But that caller won't harass her for long. Because she has Caller ID!

What the commercial didn't tell you, however, is that the phone company already provides a much cheaper service to catch harassing callers. It is called "Call Trace," and it is an effective way of catching people who make improper calls.

But the number of people who actually get harassing calls is limited. And in order to make big bucks, the phone company had to appeal to a much wider audience.

It needed to appeal to everyone who feared being harassed. And to help that along, it developed those scary commercials.

They worked. Since August 1989, some 34,000 people have signed up for Caller ID.

Do those 34,000 people all get harassing phone calls? Almost certainly not.

It is like catching mice. Most people put out mousetraps if they see a mouse.

But how many people put out mousetraps when they have no mice? How many people put out mousetraps just in case a mouse shows up?

Not many. But C&P sold Caller ID as the mousetrap you need even if you don't have the mice.

As a marketing ploy, this was pretty smart. But there were some problems.

For one thing, there was a strong element of hypocrisy in what the phone company was doing. (Some even called it a breach of contract.) That's because the phone company charges people to provide them with non-published numbers. But now, with Caller ID, the same phone company is selling a device to make non-published numbers useless.

But there were even more serious problems. Eileen Hahm, a social worker, told the Wall Street Journal that she counsels disturbed, sometimes-violent patients from home. And when she calls a client, she does not want that client to know her number. But with Caller ID, they will know her number.

Others pointed out the effect Caller ID would have on whistle-blowers and Good Samaritans. What if you happen to notice that a child in your neighborhood is being abused? You want to call a social service agency and report it, but you don't want anyone to know who you are. Caller ID would defeat that.

In Maryland, agencies that helped battered women objected strenuously to Caller ID. If a battered woman flees to a shelter and wants to call home to check on her kids, Caller ID could reveal to her abusive spouse exactly where she is.

The privacy issues raised by Caller ID were real ones, and in Pennsylvania the Court of Appeals ruled that Caller ID violated the state's wiretap laws.

There did seem to be middle ground, however. Give people who wanted to keep their numbers private a way of doing that. Let them block Caller ID if they wanted to.

But C&P telephone objected. C&P feared that if people could easily block Caller ID, the sales of Caller ID would be hurt.

The Public Service Commission of Maryland held public hearings this fall to reconsider Caller ID. And the commission found a lot of people were interested in talking about its implications.

The commission reviewed 1,300 letters and listened to 150 people testify. And, a few weeks ago, the commission ordered C&P to provide a free blocking service for those people who wanted it.

The commission wants C&P to do this "as soon as possible." But C&P is not setting any speed records. C&P would much rather drag its feet, appeal and get the ruling overturned.

Jeanine Smetana, a C&P spokeswoman, said after the commission ruling that the phone company would begin researching a way to block Caller ID but "it's still not going to be a quick process. We have not done a lot of background or research."

This really should not slow down C&P too long, however. Because Pacific Bell in California already offers such call-blocking for free.

And somebody from C&P in Maryland could probably contact somebody from Pacific Bell in California and find out how it works.

They could even call.

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