Pest Control

HAL PIPER

February 20, 1993|By HAL PIPER

The phone yanks you away from the dinner table or the shower or the top of a stepladder.

''Hello?''

''Hello, is this Cuthbert Sucker?'' That's the first clue; anybody who knows you knows you go by your middle name.

''Yes.'' Guarded.

''Cuthbert, my name is Frank Pest. How are you today?''

''I'm fine.'' Icy.

''Cuthbert, I represent the brokerage firm of Bullan Bear -- ''

You now have all the information you need: the caller's name, the firm name. Grab the initiative. Interrupt in a friendly tone.

''I'm not interested, Mr. Pest, but I understand that you have to make a living. So do I. I'm willing to listen to your sales pitch, but TC of course I charge for my services. This first call is your free introductory offer; there will be no charge. Next time you call me, Mr. Pest, or any other representative of Bullan Bear calls me, I will bill you $25 for my time and expertise in hearing you out. Now, Mr. Pest, if you will just give me your address, I'll send a letter confirming our understanding.''

Can this ploy work? It already has. A Chicago man, Robert Bulmash, took a telemarketer to small-claims court and won a $25 judgment. The court decided that when the calling firm failed to honor Mr. Bulmash's request to strike his name from its list, it accepted his offer to listen to a sales pitch for a fee of $25. Two or three other firms, according to Mr. Bulmash, have paid him $25 to get out of their hair.

Intoxicated by his success, or perhaps enraged by the telemarketers' persistence, Mr. Bulmash quit his job and founded Private Citizen, Inc., to take on the Frank Pests of the world. He claims 600 dues-paying members and has testified to congressional committees trying to rein in telephone intrusions.

Even more irritating than human hucksters are the ''autodialers'' -- machines that generate hundreds of phone calls at a time to play recorded sales pitches. Autodialers are worse than irritating, they are fiendish. They trigger the pagers of doctors (and perhaps of drug lords, though none testified in congressional hearings), and they call cellular phones whose subscribers then have to pay for being hassled.

Even more fiendish was the short-lived ''Collect 900,'' in which the autodialer billed its victim for listening to the sales pitch unless the phone were hung up within a few seconds. Answering machines and children, of course, usually will not hang up in time.

The Federal Communications Commission banned ''Collect 900'' a couple of years ago, and Congress tried to ban all autodialing. But just as the Automated Telephone Consumer Call Protection Act was to take effect in December, it was put on hold until a federal judge can hear a discrimination complaint from Katherine Moser, who runs a chimney-sweep business called Lucky Leprechaun in Keizer, Oregon.

She says that big firms can afford to hire individuals to make calls, but small companies like hers can only afford to solicit potential customers through the autodialer, which cost her $1,750 and has brought in many times that much in new business.

That is why, even if the autodialer is eventually banned, we won't get rid of Frank Pest. People respond to junk phone calls, as they use the Home Shopping Network and order from the catalogs that find their way into mailboxes. The Direct Marketing Association claims 92 million ''hits'' from unsolicited phone calls in 1989.

The association will withhold your name, however, from its direct-mail and telephone-marketing lists. The address is Direct Marketing Association, 11 W. 42nd Street, Box 3861, New York, N.Y., 10163-3861. Ask to be registered for both the Mail Preference Service and the Telephone Preference Service. Be sure to include both home and office phone numbers, and the names of all family members; otherwise, Frank Pest will be marketing hot stocks to your teen-ager.

There may be no escaping Mr. Pest in any event. A certain Baltimore brokerage firm has phoned me three times in the last year, in spite of my appeal to the Direct Marketing Association (the brokerage probably is not a member), and in spite of my sometimes rather heated insistence that I refuse to do business with them.

So, Mr. Pest, take warning. Since you deny me the option of having no business dealings with you, here's my proposition. Next call will cost you $25. You know who you are.

Hal Piper is editor of The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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