Laws, and how they work around them

I've gotten a lot of prerecorded telephone solicitations recently. These are actually illegal, for the most part, though companies use a couple of clever cheats to get around the law. The law that forbids these annoying calls is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. A commercial company cannot call you with a prerecorded message unless you have explicitly opted in (yeah, right) or you have a prior business relationship with the company. Note that unless 1) you are on the "don't call list" when that becomes active, or 2) you have explicitly opted-out from this specific company, they are still free to call you with a live human.

Note also that non-profit companies are exempt from the prerecorded call prohibition. There are a few organizations that appear to have a non-profit shell company doing the actual prerecorded outdialing. "Lighthouse Credit" seems to be one such organization. They claim to be a non-profit that simply wants to help folks repair their trashed credit. The money comes in when they--or rather their for-profit parent company--receives a portion of the refinanced payments.

One frequent characteristic of the organizations that do prerecorded (and therefore mostly illegal) outdialing is that they refuse to identify themselves. The "non-profit" shell companies sometimes will provide this information, presumably because they are comfortable that their "non-profit" status satisifes the letter of the law. For all the others, asking these questions makes them very nervous. Usually they will hang up on you if you ask them outright who they are, because they simply don't want to take the risk that you might actually do something with the information. If you really want to find out the name of the organization, it is often better to play along and pretend you are interested in their product, and then innocently ask later on in the conversation. Most likely the information is not helpful though, simply a mail drop and a company alias.

Being a costly non-customer

I always try to be as costly a non-customer to these companies as possible. This generally involves trying to speak to a live agent, leaving the phone off hook and walking away while they make their sales pitch, and so on, to tie up their phone lines and personnel and rack up their phone bill. There are some even better methods though, if you get lucky.

A couple of calls recently allowed me a great opportunity to be an expensive non-customer.

The "Reservation Center" has a phone system with an amusing bug

As I am writing this, the phone rings. It is a prerecorded solicitation from "Jeff Stern" of the "Reservation Center." I am told I have received a $99 vacation package (worth much more!) and that I should press 9 to speak to an agent. I do so. A man--live, not recorded--answers with "Central Reservations, how can I help you?"

(By not calling me . . .) I start with my usual opening statement, "Are you familiar with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act?"

He responds with a smarmy "You mean the 'don't call list'?" He was going to tell me that it's not yet in effect.

"No," I say, "this is a much older law. This law says in part that 'unsolicited prerecorded telephone solicitations to residential phone lines without prior express consent or prior business relationship are prohibited.'"

"What State has that law?" he asks, faux-innocently.

"No, this is a federal law," I point out.

"Well, are you an international lawyer? Because we're in Toronto," he responds.

"You're still breaking a United States law. Please transfer me to your manager."

"What's he going to do, close up shop and send us all home?"

"That'd be nice," I say. "Please transfer me."

Click, he hangs up on me. I stay on the line, as I have done several times in the past with this same company. I know they have a tragic and amusing flaw in their phone system. After a brief pause, I hear their phone system outdialing again and I am connected to some random person's answering machine! She hangs up. After another brief pause, I'm connected to another randomly dialed number. An answering machine. And another, then another, and another. Their phone system never disconnects me.

I leave my speakerphone on with the microphone muted. For the rest of the day, my phone is conferenced in as the buggy "Reservation Center" phone system dials several hundred homes and offices. As far as I heard, they did not make a single sale all day on this phone line. As I work at my computer I hear in the background only one actual conversations between a "Reservation Center" agent and a potential customer. The vast majority of the dial attempts get answering machines, the rest simply hang up when they hear the prerecorded pitch.

At the end of the day, the Reservation Center has been connected to my phone for 8 hours. Even if they are only paying $.04 per minute, I've been a $19.20 non-customer today. This has happened with the same company four times. So far.

My Courtesy Notification List

Another frequent annoyance I face is unsolicited fax advertisements appearing in my fax machine. These almost always come with an 800 number, which I call. I ask to speak to a manager to discuss the company's illegal activities, namely, sending unsolicited faxes. Generally I am then placed on hold and then hung up on. At this point, or maybe after another try or three, I add the 800 number to my lawbreaker's courtesy notification list.

Tirelessly working every business day in my crawlspace, one of my computers uses a telephony card (a Quicknet linejack) to sequentially dial the 800 numbers on my collected list several times an hour. When it connects it plays the following prerecorded courtesy notification:

"Hello. This is a courtesy notice to inform you that your organization is breaking the law. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act says, in part, that fax advertisements without prior *express* consent are prohibited. Opt out is *not* required by the recipient. Since our repeated attempts to speak to your management have not been successful, this courtesy notice will be repeated to this number from time to time. If you wish to be taken off our lawbreakers courtesy notification list, please send an email to with a subject line of 'remove'. Thank you."

Even though I provide a simple procedure for the recipients to remove themselves from my list, nobody has taken me up on the offer.

Occasionally as I sit at my computer I'll listen in on one of my courtesy notification outdials. Most of the time a human answers, my message begins playing, and the person hangs up (often after a curse or expression of annoyance). Recently, one of the recipients of my courtesy notification has begun answering with a prerecorded warning message of their own (so the phone call consists of two computers playing prerecorded messages to each other). Their warning message says that my call has been logged and I may be committing phone harassment. But I'm not trying to sell them anything. And I do have a prior business relationship with them--after all, they called me first. I do provide them a simple procedure to remove themselves from my courtesy notification list. I'm just trying to perform a public service, because certainly they don't want to be breaking the law. I'm really not too worried about being sued.

After all, they're probably in Toronto, and that's a long way away.


UPDATE: Moments after I was (finally) disconnected from a day-long call conferenced in with the Reservation Center, my phone rings again. It is Lighthouse Credit. Coincidence? Perhaps. I have suspected that many of the recent spate of telemarketing abusers were actually using the same call center. It seems plausible that they finally cleared their dialer, which disconnected my phone, and loaded a new 'campaign' for Lighthouse Credit.

Contact me. Any mail that doesn't have the word "armadillo" in the Subject line will be discarded as spam.

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