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Robocalls, the bane of modern life

In 10 days, it will be over. Most of us will stay up quite late on November 8th watching our TV sets, possibly biting our nails as results come in from precincts in states across the nation. Right now, I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to who the winner will be. I’ll be rooting for certain local and state candidates, a few propositions, and one local measure. Of course, I’ll be interested in who will be the next president, but as has been the case too often, I voted for the lesser of two evils, at least in my opinion.

In the recent past, I dutifully walked to my polling place, just to give the people who volunteered their time to work there something to do. But, a few years ago, I applied for a mail-in ballot, and I’ve used this process ever since. So, I’ve already cast my ballot. Unlike the people who are rounded up for the town halls that certain networks air, I haven’t been “undecided” since the prevailing candidates emerged and the gist of the state propositions became known.

Yet, my phone rings several times a day with recorded messages urging me to vote for or against some person or issue. Because the calls are made by automated systems, it doesn’t relieve any frustration to yell at the celebrity whose voice echoes along communication lines several thousands times an hour. And, to add to the frustration, now my dentist and physicians utilize robo-callng.

Laws of robotics Science-fiction write Isaac Asimov devised the Three Laws of Robotics in a series of short stories that was published between 1940 and 1950. These immutable rules are: (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Unfortunately, the far-sighted author did not anticipate a day when tele-robots would drive people crazy with their messages. The “Call-em-all” website claims that “automated calling service saves you time, headache, and stress of having to reach everyone on your list individually.” The website for “OneCallNow” informs the viewer, “Automated dialing and calling systems make hundreds — even thousands — of calls at once.”

Naturally, these services do not address the time, headache, and stress that their systems inflict upon the people who receive the calls. Of particular nuisance is Walgreen’s system that not only repeats the message (in case the listener misses it the first time) but also follows up a couple of hours later with the message that “your prescription has been delayed.”

Topping Walgreen’s system is the one that asks the phone answerer a question that will undoubtedly elicit a “yes” response. For example, a pleasant human voice (recorded, of course) asks, “Can you hear me all right?” When the voice recognition system detects a positive response, the sales pitch begins. I don’t know what happens when a negative response is given because I’ve never been quick enough to catch on to the fact that I’m being called by a machine.

Drawbacks Writing for the Houston Chronicle, Keith Evans offers the following observation: “Though automated phone systems offer a number of benefits for businesses, nonprofits and others, these systems have plenty of critics. Outbound automated phone systems have the potential to annoy consumers, and poorly configured systems can leave people listening to silence or receiving multiple calls during which the system simply hangs up.” An “outbound automated phone system” is one that makes calls to potential customers, and this practice has drawn so much ire that its use is now regulated by the Federal Communication Commission, which requires businesses to exercise extensive compliance measures to prevent such glitches.

Inbound automated phone systems (those that take calls from potential customers) have been equally flawed. Poorly designed systems can leave callers not only frustrated but actually unable to reach their intended party. On a couple of occasions, I’ve attempted to make an appointment with a local ophthalmology office to have my eyes checked. So far, I’ve been unable to get past the answering system. As Evans points out in his article, “Misdirected calls can also hamper productivity ...” He reports that many businesses have “discontinued their inbound automated phone systems in favor of connecting callers directly with live operators.” What a wonderful idea! Perhaps the ophthalmology office will catch on to this innovation before I go blind.

An end in sight? Unsolicited telemarketing calls are the bane of modern life. We are constantly annoyed with offers of solar panels for our roofs, fantastic cruises to exotic ports of call, and expensive services that we neither need nor want. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), thought it had fixed the problem in 2009 when it revised the Telemarketing Sales Rule. This regulation bans robo-calls to consumers who have not provided permission in writing. Theoretically, a company that violates the ruling would face a fine of $16,000 per call.

After four years had passed, nothing had changed.

Writing for Gizmodo in 2013, Andrew Tarantola reported that Jon Leibowitz, chair of the FTC, said, “Starting Sept. 1, this bombardment of prerecorded pitches, senseless solicitations, and malicious marketing will be illegal.” That was three years ago. Again, nothing has changed.

Our only defense seems to be to just hang up. Don’t press 1 to talk to a live operator. In fact, don’t even speak. You can log on to the Do Not Call registry (DNC) and register your home and cell phone numbers. But, this will not entirely eliminate robo-calls. However, it may reduce the number of them that you get. As of the beginning of this year, nearly 250 million Americans have signed up (including me). But, the calls keep coming. You can also lodge a complaint with the FTC at 1-888-382-1222 or on the DNC website. Good luck with that!

Personally, I don’t have a cell phone, and I’m thinking about having my land line disconnected. That means that I’ll have to go out to my car to make calls. Off course, I won’t know about any incoming calls unless I just happen to be driving when one reaches my OnStar system. But, that may be a small price to pay.

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