Saturday, February 20, 2016

A War of Words

In a fit of pique nearly a decade ago, I penned the following:

“History tells us that the first words ever spoken over a telephone were courtesy of its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who said to his assistant listening in the next room, ‘Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.’

“I suspect history's second telephone conversation went something like this: "Mr. Bell, I'm calling on behalf of the Society to Eliminate Nose Hair. As you know, Mr. Bell, nose hair strikes thousands of adults in their prime, causing public displays of picking and plucking that are intolerable in this enlightened era. Remember, Mr. Bell, a nostril is a terrible thing to lose. Help us stamp out nose hair by giving us a generous donation. How much can I put you down for?"

“At which point Alexander Graham Bell hung up and immediately set out to invent call blocking.”

I was motivated to write the above when the frequency of telemarketing calls to my home had advanced from mildly irritating to infuriating to intolerable.

Indeed, I had registered my number with the federal do-not-call list in 2003. But like a lot of governmental agencies, the performance has been abysmally short of the promise. At one point, I thought I had mistakenly signed up for the call-me-anytime list.

I’d like to state that ridding the world of telemarketers through the power of the published word was an unqualified success. I’d also like to tell you that I won the lottery and bought the entire island of Maui as a vacation retreat.

Alas, neither is true.

As of this writing, I still receive on the average of 8 to 10 telemarketing calls a day on my home’s landline. Which is particularly amazing since I have never bought anything from a telemarketer.

I would just as soon give my bank account number to the widow of a deposed Nigerian prince who contacted me by email and promised she has $5 million ready to send my way.

Mercifully, I have caller ID that allows me to ignore many of the calls I receive and I’ve grown wise to the fact that many of these telemarketers attach a local area code to their calls to trick you into thinking it’s a friend or neighbor.

Which only adds to the irritation quotient.

A Los Angeles man, Roger Anderson, has decided to irritate right back. He is developed a robotic answering service that wastes telemarketers’ time.

It’s called ---what else? --- Jolly Roger Telephone.

In a typical call, the robot keeps the telemarketer on the phone for a few minutes, but in some cases they go on for much longer. The robot does this by exploiting a flaw in the telemarketer playbook: staying on the line if the person is agreeable. So the system leans heavily on  Anderson's voice saying repeatedly, “yeah,” “sure,” “okay” and “yes.” 

One conversation as reported on the Internet went something like this:

Cable company: “How many TVs do you guys normally use in the home?”

Robot: “Sure.”

Cable company: “And do you know if those TVs are also in high-definition, HD?”

Robot: “Uh-huh.”

Cable company: “Okay do you guys normally like to record with DVR services?”

Robot: “Okay.”

Cable company: “Do you know who is your current TV provider?”

Robot: “Yeah.”

Cable Company: “Okay great as well.”

It tied up the telemarketer for 22 minutes.

Anderson said he experimented with different personalities for his robot before deciding that an odd man who just woke up from a nap worked best. For instance, the robot burned time by telling the telemarketer they sound like a former high school classmate, rambling on about needing coffee or asking them to start over again.

In one recording, he told a telemarketer he couldn’t answer any questions because there was a bee crawling up his arm. When the bee was disposed of, he asked the telemarketer to again repeat his pitch.

For those who prefer taking on a telemarketer one-on-one, here are a few suggestions:

Speak to them in a foreign language, preferably one you just made up. If they ask, "how are you today?" tell them your dog just died. If you're a male and the caller is female, ask in a husky voice, "so, what are you wearing?" Imitate a recorded message saying you'll be released from prison soon.

If that fails, one wag suggested telling the caller that they have reached a murder scene, you are a detective, the person they are calling is dead and you want to know exactly how they know the victim.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

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