Telecoms play both sides in telemarketing technology war

Monday, October 28, 2002

NEW YORK -- Victor Symonette, a 49-year-old orchestra conductor, likes to sleep late on Sundays. So he pays his phone company, Verizon, $10 per month to block telemarketing calls that used to wake his family.

"The last thing I want to hear is a telemarketer at eight in the morning," said Symonette, his soothing baritone rising in anger. "You don't expect anyone to call you at that hour. You think it's an emergency."

Americans like Symonette pay $2 billion a year to block pushy calls from peddlers of goods like credit cards, satellite TV and real estate, said Robert Bulmash of the privacy group Private Citizen.

For regional phone companies like Verizon, Qwest, SBC and BellSouth, privacy services like Caller ID and Security Screen are a growing revenue source.

But the phone companies aren't just trying to thwart sales calls. They're also helping telemarketers make them.

Telecoms sell telemarketers high-capacity lines and sophisticated "predictive dialing" machines that have helped unleash a stampede of automated sales calls.

'Like arms merchants'

Some, including Qwest and Verizon, even sell home numbers of the same customers who buy their privacy services -- unless they pay a fee to have their numbers unlisted.

"The phone companies are like arms merchants in a technological war between telemarketers and phone subscribers," said privacy advocate Jason Catlett. "They profit from both sides."

Customers of carriers including BellSouth and Sprint -- which say they don't sell numbers -- still surrender their privacy to firms that scan and sell White Pages data.

Verizon spokeswoman Catherine Lewis says the company isn't playing telemarketers and consumers against each other.

"I don't think it's a case of we should pick one side over the other," she said. "We do serve both sides."

It ought to be illegal, says Bulmash, whose group publishes the book "So You Want to Sue a Telemarketer." Bulmash says he's helped members collect $1.4 million from telemarketers who break privacy rules.

"If Terminix were to throw termites on my foundation, then bang on my door saying, 'Hey, you've got termites, we can get rid of them,' the attorney general would be all over them," Bulmash said. "The phone companies are doing the same thing."

104 million calls a day

Telemarketing has grown so widespread -- and become such a nuisance, many argue -- that the two regulating federal agencies, the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission, are exploring the creation of a nationwide "do not call" list similar to lists many states have created.

An FCC memo says telemarketers attempt 104 million calls a day to U.S. businesses and consumers. Sales revenue has risen from about $435 billion in 1990 to around $660 billion last year.

A computerized calling machine called the predictive dialer is responsible for the boom.

The machines dial numbers stored in a database using a mathematical algorithm to predict when a telemarketer will be ready to finish one sales call and start another. When the machine reaches a person, the call is supposed to be transferred to a telemarketer who is just finishing a previous call.

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