NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — The Robots Are On the Line

If I’d had to choose an icon for my teenage years, it might have been the telephone. Phones were the social media of our day, a glorious gift of technology that connected us with our friends — heaven for teens!

Though the black rotary-style phone was mounted on the wall in the kitchen, its spiral cord was long enough to streeeeetch into the next room, offering a perfectly private way to gossip and giggle … around the clock and, theoretically, out of range of prying parents and snoopy little brothers.

Those were the days when hearts leaped at the sound of that ringy-dingy. It was a more innocent time, when not answering was as unthinkable as not washing your hands before dinner.

In days of yore, the grown-ups were paying dearly for the privilege of those pretty princess phones, due in no small part to the now-quaint practice of “long-distance charges.” A call from beyond the city limits was a big occasion; you talked fast and hung up quickly.

No more. On the one hand, the cost of telephony has dropped dramatically. We get far more and better services at a lower comparative price, especially with cell phones. On the other, progress has made it almost laughably cheap for every Tom, Dick and Carmen to reach out and try to touch — no, grab you.

The friendly sound of a ringing telephone seldom signals a pleasant connection anymore. Even at work, that once-welcome sound of impending business has lurched toward sheer irritation. Chances are, that’s no longer opportunity calling. It’s that shady company in Tijuana that once sold you cheap recycled toner cartridges that leaked yellow all over the printer.

We are now receiving 12 to 14 telemarketing calls a day. The phone has rung at 7:15 a.m. and at 9:55 p.m. Unsolicited and unloved, virtually all of these unwanted interruptions come from 800 numbers and unrecognized area codes. More than half these days are robocalls — the soulless, automated, recorded messages that fly in the face of our conventional telephone-answering habits. They threaten to make the whole technology obsolete.

“Do-not-call” lists haven’t really done the trick, at least at our house. Who knows? Perhaps enrolling our numbers back in 2003, the year that the list began, did stem at least a fraction of a percent of the maddening calls. But those would have been the good guys — the telemarketing sellers who actually follow the rules as set out by the Federal Trade Commission.

The majority of live telemarketers who reach out today — at what seems like the least convenient moments — are legal and utterly kosher, thanks to those rules, which specifically exempt charities, political campaigns and companies with whom you’ve had a prior business relationship from the telemarketing ban … the entities who just happen to generate most unwanted calls in the first place.

Human callers are easy enough to deal with. Just say, “ No, thanks — have a nice day” and hang up, resisting the urge to smash the phone into the wall or throw it through the window.

But then there are the others, the devil’s spawn, the scourge of marketing technology run amok … the maddening inhuman exasperators we know as robocalls.

Robocalls target our eardrums via computers and the Internet. Dirt cheap to launch and impossible to annihilate, these evil automated avatars have grown like science-fiction alien spores that overpower the planet.

Today, Consumer Reports estimates that at least 35 percent of telephone traffic is made up of automated calls — unwanted, despised, yet perversely resistant to any and all attempts to stem the invasion. That’s literally billions of calls every day, and the number is still rising.

You know how much you hate them, too: that brief pause, followed by a cheerful pitch offering to cut your credit card interest in half … if only you pay a modest fee upfront. How about the sincere-sounding gentleman who claims the government wants to slash your mortgage rate? Or the helpful lass who points out how badly your Google listing is out of date? Worst of all is that stern, alarmed fellow who learned English as a second language, warning you that Microsoft has detected a terrible virus on your computer. Naturally, he offers to save you.

It took a little more than 150 years to carry us from Alexander Graham Bell’s miracle device to Carmen the credit-card robocaller, but sadly, here we find ourselves: Success has ruined the telephone.

The slide toward these end times began when the first telemarketer slid out of the primordial slime. Now, instead of once-thrilling convenience and connection and pleasure, we view our phones — land lines or wireless — with the same unease as a once-cuddly puppy grown into an unpredictable beast that bites the mailman and defies every attempt at house-breaking.

Yet most of us still feed and harbor the devil-dog in our home or in our pocket. A majority of homes stubbornly continue to maintain landlines, either due to a deep fear of missing some vague good news or plain, everyday inertia.

The percentage of traditional phone lines continues to shrivel. Recent CDC data suggest that more than 40 percent of American households have already ditched them. Common sense seems to be propelling the rest of us toward losing those listed numbers.

But resorting to cell phones is much less defense against telemarketers than we once hoped. After all, it’s been against federal law to robocall cell phones since 1999.

But how is that working out for you?

The rules require telemarketers to only call cell phones whose owners have explicitly given their permission. (Check the fine print before you click “I agree.”) Yet Russ and I get random calls like clockwork — fewer, perhaps, than on our land line, but their number seems to be accelerating.

Technology enables the pests to stay a step ahead of the agencies that would enforce them. Thanks to VoIP calling, or voice-over-Internet-protocol, it’s possible for one call to reach literally millions in minutes for a fraction of cent each.

Your phone may be able to block some numbers, but that’s not a realistic defense when the automated callers can switch their originating numbers with a few keystrokes. They can force your Caller ID to label them “private callers.” They can “spoof” a number by displaying an area code and number from literally anywhere on earth.

Responding only to known area codes like 701 and 218 no longer helps, since the number that pops up now has no connection to a physical locale. We’ve even received calls that register as “000-000-0000” – clearly from an alien planet.

Weirdest of all, though, is glancing at your caller ID … and seeing your very own number blinking back. Remember those horror movies in which cops trace the threatening mystery call and shout, “It’s coming from upstairs!” Run!

Laws and regulations aren’t going to solve the dilemma. The Federal Trade Commission has shrugged and admitted defeat; the powerful-sounding federal agency’s best hope now seems to be its annual contest inviting the public to come up with solutions.

Beginning in 2012, the agency has awarded substantial prizes to innovators who dream up tools to thwart evil with innovation. The first victor, an app called Nomorobo, promises to intercept and dump automated calls after the first ring, and it’s free. Unfortunately, it currently works with only a limited number of providers. If you use AT&T or Verizon, it may be worth checking out.

A Google search for other solutions turns up pages with headlines like “Rage Against Robocalls” and “Reaching Out to Avoid Someone, Like a Telemarketer or Politician.” They echo the kind of bland advice you’ll find on the FTC’s own website: Keep your number to yourself. Hang up right away. Ignore unknown numbers.

Or consider the most radical, lowest-tech solution of all: Don’t answer the doggone thing. Turn down the ringer and screen your voicemail. From a technical standpoint, this seems akin to telling someone who drives a broken-down clunker, “Get a horse.” Nevertheless, it costs you nothing and it really does work.

No matter how the little voice inside your head shrills, “Pick up the phone” … ignore it. Just keep your fingers crossed that, when you win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, they contact you by email.

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