Don't worry: If you don't pick up, we'll call again

October 05, 2003|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

I'VE BEEN WRITING columns for a long time now, two or three centuries at least. I've written on topics that touched a nerve among you readers -- the moronic-TV-commercials nerve, the loud-cell-phone-talkers nerve, and of course the low-flow-toilet nerve. I even touched -- and I regret this deeply -- the Barry Manilow nerve.

But I've never touched a nerve like the one I touched when I wrote about telemarketers.

To review: In August, I wrote a column about the National Do Not Call Registry, which allows you to go to an Internet site (www.donotcall.gov) and register your phone number. The plan is that most telemarketers would then be prohibited from calling you.

The Do Not Call Registry is wildly popular with the human public. More than 50 million households have signed up. This displeases the telemarketing industry, which believes it has a constitutional right to call people who do not want to be called. Several telemarketing groups have filed lawsuits to block the registry.

So in my August column, I printed the toll-free telephone number of one of these groups, the American Teleservices Association. My thinking was: Hey, if the ATA feels its members have a constitutional right to call you, then surely the ATA feels that you have an equally constitutional right to call the ATA.

Well.

It turned out that a lot of you were eager to call up the telemarketing industry. Thousands and thousands of you called the ATA. I found out about this when I saw an article in a direct-marking newspaper, the DM News, which quoted the executive director of the ATA, Tim Searcy. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"The ATA received no warning about the article from Barry or anyone connected with him, Searcy said . . .the Barry column has had harmful consequences for the ATA, Searcy said. An ATA staffer has spent about five hours a day for the past six days monitoring the voice mail and clearing out messages."

That's correct: The ATA received no warning that it was going to get unwanted calls! Not only that, but these unwanted calls were an inconvenience for the ATA, and wasted the ATA's time!

I just hope nobody interrupted the ATA's dinner.

Anyway, you can imagine how I felt. I would have called the ATA myself to express my feelings, but the ATA finally had to disconnect its phone number. Really.

I myself received approximately seven billion phone calls, letters and e-mails on this topic. About 99 percent came from consumers who are wildly enthusiastic about the idea of calling telemarketers. Many of these consumers wanted me to publish more telemarketers' numbers, including residential numbers. As one e-mailer put it: "I think we should call them at home and try to sell them the idea of not calling people at home."

The other 1 percent of the response came from people in the telemarketing industry, who pointed out that I am evil vermin scum, and -- even worse -- a member of the news media. Their main arguments are that (a) telemarketers are hardworking people, and (b) if they're not allowed to call people who don't want to be called, telemarketing jobs could be lost, and U.S. economy would suffer. Tim Searcy of the ATA was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that the impact of the Do Not Call Registry would be (I did not make this quote up) "like an asteroid hitting the earth." Yes, an asteroid!

As I write these words, lawyers and politicians and lobbyists and judges are swarming all over the telemarketing issue, so I don't know what the legal status of the Do Not Call registry will be when you read this column. But it appears that the telemarketers plan to continue their efforts to save the planet by fighting for the right to call people who do not want to be called.

I realize that this makes many of you angry. I realize that many of you would like to, once again, let the telemarketers know how you feel. And I am, frankly, tempted to reveal to you here that the American Teleservices Association (Web site www.ataconnect.org) seems to have a phone line working (at least for now) at 317-816-9336.

But would it be right to reveal this? I mean, yes, you could call the ATA again. But the ATA surely doesn't want you to call again. It's inconvenient! And to insist on calling somebody who doesn't want to be called, even if you have the legal right to call, well, that's just plain rude.

So I am taking the high road.

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