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Steve Mullen: No phone calls, please


Steve Mullen



They muscle their way in -- uninvited, unwelcome, and downright annoying. 


They''re the unending cascade of automated phone calls -- in particular, those that play a recording warning you that your car warranty is about to expire. 


If you haven''t heard of this phenomenon, or been a target yourself, ask around. You''re bound to hit pay dirt within the first few people you talk to.  


The call comes from a robot, but it''s not a friendly robot like R2D2 or that little gadget that vacuums floors. It''s a mindless robot that lives inside a computer somewhere, and it has no idea if you even own a car, much less one that''s under warranty. In fact, the robot doesn''t even know that it''s calling you. It''s calling numbers blindly, at random. It hits every phone line it can find, including fax machines, emergency phones in elevators, and, most frequently, unsuspecting folks'' home and cell phones. 


To me the worst thing is, the robots -- and the companies behind them -- don''t care if you''ve signed up on the do-not-call list (the magical system that''s supposed to block calls like these). The calls come anyway. 


And, of course, at least some of the companies are selling a bill of goods. "If people call back and agree to buy policies ... the companies often don''t let them see the contracts until they agree to pay," The Associated Press reported. "And some scam victims don''t learn until it''s too late that the deals don''t cover many types of repairs." 


"Some people are losing thousands and thousands of dollars in purchasing a product that turns out to be useless," Michelle Corey, president of the Better Business Bureau in St. Louis, Mo., told the AP. More than 140,000 people have complained to the Better Business Bureau about the calls in the past year. 


I''ve gotten these calls, but really didn''t think much of them, chalking them up to the inevitable noise that comes along with life these days. That''s until Jonathan Bozeman, the friendly bartender at J. Broussard''s, mentioned the calls the other day.  


Broussard''s can be pretty busy without random phone calls from an unscrupulous robot trying to sell you a useless car warranty under false pretenses. Jon, who counts answering the restaurant''s phone as one of his duties, said he''s been dealing with the calls for months, even before the restaurant moved into its new location. He figures the restaurant gets at least three calls a week, at the minimum. The calls come to not just the business line, but to the fax line -- and, of course, to his personal cell phone. He sounds like someone being singled out for persecution. He simply can''t shake the calls. 


A few times, he said, he''s tried to stay on the line to talk to a real person. "I''ve tried to talk to them, to tell them this is a business, but never got anybody," he said. When he''s getting the calls, he''s too busy to wait around on hold to talk to someone that he never wanted to talk to in the first place. 


These companies, it is estimated, have made a billion such calls so far. Their robots are relentless. Think the Terminator wearing a telephone headset. There''s no stopping them. 


Or so it seems. As it turns out, the robots are calling some of the wrong people, who are finally taking notice. Among them is U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, who vowed last week to work at the federal level to put an end to the calls. A federal judge, also last week, issued an injunction against two of the offending companies, ordering them to stop (because, among other things, they''re violating the do-not-call rules). 


Attorneys general and other agencies in 40 states are investigating the companies at some level. 


Maybe all this, and a little publicity, will someday put an end to what Schumer calls "robo-dialer harassment." 


But I doubt it, and that''s the frustrating thing.  


The do-not-call list has been toothless from the very start. Dishonest, yet clever, spammers will get through anyway. And who can blame them for flaunting the system, when they can get away with it for years on end?  


These guys are slippery, and have figured out how to keep the Feds off their tail. "Unfortunately, the calls are almost impossible to trace since the numbers are spoofed," writes Chris Tutor, an old Clarion-Ledger colleague of mine who now works for Birmingham-based and is following the issue. "One number being used was traced to a disconnected phone in Nebraska that had belonged to an illegal immigrant who had been deported after a meat-packing plant raid." 


Adding insult to injury is that cell phones are targeted. That''s a sucker punch right in your Anytime Minutes.  


Where''s the civility? 


Steve Mullen is managing editor of The Dispatch. Reach him at [email protected]


Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.


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