By Jane Black A month-and-a-half after the September 11 attacks, the government is pleading with Americans to get back to business as usual. And what's more American than telemarketing calls? After nearly two months of quiet dinner conversation, home phones are once again starting to ring with offers of everything from insurance and new credit cards to dubious vacation timeshares.
Enter the Telezapper, one of the most innovative new privacy products on the market. Instead of manually removing yourself from pesky call lists, the Telezapper deceives marketers into believing your phone has been disconnected. That prevents their calls from getting through and tricks the companies into taking your number off their rosters.
Here's how it works: More than 80% of call centers use a special piece of software known as an auto dialer, which can call several numbers simultaneously. If you answer, the auto dialer quickly connects you to an operator. (If you ever hear a short silence before the pitch, it's because the auto dialer is scrambling to find an operator for you to speak with.) If you don't answer, the computer will put your number back in the queue to try again later.
TECHNO JUDO. The Telezapper aims straight at the auto dialer's Achilles' heel. Before ringing, the device sends out a short beep that indicates to the auto dialer that your phone has been disconnected. It sounds like the beep of an answering machine, but it's actually the first tone of the three-tone tune you hear when you call a disconnected number. The auto dialer hears the beep, records your number as disconnected, and hangs up. All other incoming calls get through without interruption.
The Telezapper is not by any means the first gadget to tackle the problem of unwanted phone solicitations. Telephone marketing, after all, is a huge business -- and growing. Companies spent a whopping $73.2 billion on telemarketing in 2000, up from $50.2 billion in 1995, according to the Direct Marketing Assn. (DMA). That's about 38% of today's total direct-marketing expenditure. The DMA expects telemarketing expenditure to rise to more than $100 billion by 2005.
Other ploys to defeat telemarketers have grown up alongside the burst in telespending. Twenty states offer do-not-call lists as does the DMA. But, in my eyes, the Telezapper is the simplest tool available to help reduce phone solicitations. "This product is a kind of technological judo against telemarketers. It uses their own equipment against them," says Jason Catlett, head of Junkbusters, a privacy group that educates consumers about ways to protect themselves from unsolicited marketing.
SWEEPING THE LINES. The Telezapper is manufactured and distributed by Royal Appliance Manufacturing (RAM), better known as the makers of the Dirt Devil vacuum. But it was invented by one Bob Bensman, president and founder of Ver-a-fast, a telemarketing firm based near the headquarters of Royal Appliance in Glenwillow, Ohio. Bensman says he developed the product to increase consumer privacy and as a way to stem costly and difficult to follow do-not-call legislation aimed at telemarketers.
After 25 years in the business, Bensman understood how to exploit auto-dialing, but he still needed a manufacturer. So, in June, 2000, on the advice of a cousin who works for Royal Appliance, he pitched his concept to the vacuum king. Royal Appliance immediately embraced the idea, eventually paying Bensman more than $1 million for rights to the product. "The area of privacy is growing extremely important in consumers' homes. Privacy is going mainstream," says Rick Farone, executive vice-president of Privacy Technologies, the Royal Appliance subsidiary in charge of the Telezapper.
So far, Farone is "very pleased" with sales, though he was unable to make sales figures available. He adds that the Telezapper, which retails for $49.95, is one of the best product launches he has seen in 15 years in the consumer-product business.
OTHER PITCH-BUSTERS. There are other ways to put telemarketers off the scent. Telecom SBC Communications (SBC) has offered a monthly service called Privacy Manager to its customers since 1998. Privacy Manager intercepts calls on which no telephone-number information shows up on a caller ID. When an unidentified call is intercepted, Privacy Manager prompts the caller to record his or her name before the call is connected -- and then tells the subscriber who is on the line. Callers who intentionally block their caller-ID information are given the option to temporarily unblock their numbers in order to be connected. Callers who fail to identify themselves are disconnected, and the subscriber won't hear the telephone ring. To date, more than 1 million households have signed up for the service, which costs from $3 to $6 per month.
Privacy Manager is a good concept, but cumbersome in practice. First, it might interfere with calls from friends and family. Second, it assumes that all numbers with their caller ID switched on are to be trusted. But many telemarketers don't bother to turn off their caller IDs for the simple reason that consumers probably wouldn't recognize it in the first place.
Rob Meyer, a computer consultant based in Walnut Creek, Calif., found out about the service from, you guessed it, a telemarketing call from Pacific Bell. "Most telemarketers clearly bypass the service completely, and when the Privacy Manager does catch a call, it still interrupts you to ask if you wish to take the call," Meyer said in an e-mail interview. "For me, that pretty much defeats the whole purpose of trying to filter them in the first place."
BEST OPTION. The DMA offers its own free Telephone Preference Service (TPS), which is also designed to brush off telemarketers. You can register for TPS on the Internet or by mailing a letter with your name, address, phone number, and signature. Registration puts you on a do-not-call list that is updated four times a year. The DMA says calls will be reduced about two months after signing up.
Be aware, however, that the TPS list does not apply to all telemarketers -- only those who choose to use it and DMA members, who are required to take note. The TPS also won't protect you from sequentially dialed computer calls, like the ones you may be getting from political candidates. To get dropped from those rolls, you have to listen to the automated message to obtain the telemarketer's name, address, or phone number, and then contact them directly. And if you move, you have to re-register with TPS.
For my money, that leaves the Telezapper as the best option for consumers who want to put an end to the nuisance of unsolicited calls. Remember the Seinfeld episode where Jerry gets a telemarketing call? He tells the operator he's busy and asks for a number so he can call back later. When the telemarketer says that he doesn't think that would be a very good idea, Jerry responds: "Oh, you mean you don't want people calling you at home and harassing you?" Then he hangs up. Now the Telezapper can do that for you. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online. Follow her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column, only on BW Online