Beating junk phone calls

Sylvia Porter

January 22, 1991|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1990 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

You're just sitting down to dinner, after a long day, when the telephone rings. You answer.

"Hello," says a bright but faintly mechanical voice. "How are you this evening? My name is (a first name is given). I'd like to talk to you for a moment about (a product, from above-ground burial to vinyl siding, is mentioned)."

Your privacy has just been invaded, yet if you are polite you may listen while your dinner grows cold. If you are annoyed enough to make a smart remark, you may trigger a stream of vulgarities and verbal abuse.

There is junk mail; there are now junk fax messages. Increasingly, the sales technique of choice is the junk phone call. You are the victim of the booming business of telemarketing.

Much has been made in the last year or so of telemarketing schemes that are crooked, usually offering phony get-rich-quick scams.

But entirely legitimate phone solicitation is a big business, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). It is expected to top $10 billion in 1991.

Often the telemarketing is not done by the company offering goods or services but by a third party. This could be a stand-alone concern or a subsidiary of the telephone company itself. Or, like American Airlines, which employs 2,000 people in a telemarketing company at its Texas reservations center.

Sometimes the telemarketing is done by computerized recording machines that play the sales pitch and then call upon you to key in responses with a touch-tone phone. Sometimes, elaborate automatic machines dial numbers in order. Those that are answered are switched quickly to a living telemarketer. Having an unlisted number will not exempt you.

Though entirely legitimate, what savvy businessfolk call telemarketing many consumers find to be tel-annoyances. What can you do to stop them from coming to your home? Not much.

Not that there haven't been attempts.

* One man has achieved some success in taking telemarketers to small claims court, suing for the time he has spent dealing with them. Usually he has won, but the amounts are small and the process is time consuming. And, he admits, his actions have done nothing to reduce the number of telepitches he receives.

* Southern Bell telephone offers a service where you can dial a number right after hanging up from a phone call. This ensures that you will receive no further calls from the number that just called. The problem is, telemarketing outfits employ from dozens of phone lines. Such a call eliminates only one.

* The Florida legislature last year approved a law that allows residents who do not wish to receive telepitches to register with the state. Each year a list of those who have registered is prepared, and telemarketing companies in the state are required to remove the numbers from their lists. The problem is that a company still can call into Florida from another state, unhindered by Florida law.

Other states are considering legislation as well. But so far, there isn't much you or anyone else can do.

If you find it to be a problem (many people don't), the best way to deal with the situation is to tell the telemarketer that you are not interested and that you will not welcome further telephone solicitations, according to the DMA. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this produces spotty results at best.

Privately, a DMA spokesperson says that if growth continues at its present rate -- nearly 20 percent per year -- it's likely that the industry itself will establish a list of people not to call, much like the list of people who don't want to receive advertising by mail. And even if employed, such a list would apply only to DMA members.

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