Autodial solicitors are taking over my telephone

Gwinn Owens

January 21, 1991|By Gwinn Owens

A FEW DAYS ago I was leaving for an appointment -- and already late -- when I realized I had to make a quick phone call. A second before I reached the phone, it rang. I picked it up, only to hear a recorded message soliciting supplementary Medicare insurance. Annoyed, I hung up, waited a few seconds, picked up the phone again. The message was still on. Now furious, I hung up once more, then tried a third time. The vocal juggernaut continued, finally ending after more than a minute and a half.

I was and am still enraged. This is my telephone, I pay for it and no outsider with an unwanted, unwelcome message should have the right to render my line useless. A live human being on the other end of the line would, on my request, end the call. But a mechanical interloper can actually deprive me of my own telephone.

In the worst possible scenario, suppose I needed to dial 911? Literally, a minor fire could turn into an inferno in a minute and a half. Suppose there is an accident on the road outside my house? A minute and a half delay could mean the difference between life and death of an injured person.

This, I have subsequently learned, has actually happened on a number of occasions -- once recently in New York when a woman was trying to call the police; another time when the family of a disturbed patient in New Jersey was trying to reach his doctor.

A spokesman for the C&P Telephone Co. informs me that a so-called autodial call must disconnect when the phone is hung up for 10 seconds, as required by a bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly at the last session. The law, however, cannot control autodial calls that originate out of state, as many of them do.

A few days after the call that had so distressed me, I received another recorded call, apparently from the same company (which, as far as I could tell in listening sporadically, did not identify itself). This time I was alerted. I hung up for 10 seconds, but the message continued. I tried 15 seconds, and it continued. Clearly it was either from out of state or was in violation of state law.

So egregious has been the abuse of these telephone thieves that national resentment has erupted. It was in response to this that Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts introduced a bill in the last session of the House of Representatives that would eliminate recorded autodial messages for anyone who doesn't want to receive one. As a practical matter, it might put such solicitors out of business. The bill was passed unanimously by the House but, unfortunately, died in the Senate. It will be reintroduced in the new Congress.

The Markey bill's main provision is one to gladden the heart of anyone who has been beleaguered with recorded phone messages. It would allow anyone who prefers not to be called to have his or her number placed on a special list maintained by the local telephone company. Solicitors would not be allowed to call these numbers, under penalty of fine or imprisonment prescribed by the law.

They would also not be allowed to dial any number assigned to institutions dealing with emergencies -- police and fire departments or hospitals, for example. And any recorded phone messages would have to disconnect within five seconds after the called party hangs up.

The reason this would seriously hamper the autodial nuisance is that the system is currently non-discriminatory. It works by simply calling numbers in sequence -- thus it doesn't even protect unlisted phones. For these privacy-invaders to be forced to cull out numbers from a list of protected subscribers would throw a monkey wrench of decency into their evil machine.

If a live salesman calls me to sell basement waterproofing or storm windows, I can tell him, Thank you, I am not interested; if he is the third salesman during my dinner, I might even tell him to go to hell, but at least he hears me.

The disemboweled spiel of the autodialer, in contrast, doesn't hear me, and his live perpetrators (who are probably at home enjoying a quiet dinner) don't care. I care a lot, so when a spokesman for Markey says he hopes to move his bill quickly with the opening of the 102nd Congress, that's great. Tomorrow would not be soon enough.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.

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