I had to change my life last week. It was a relatively mundane change, and after I relate the circumstances, sensible readers will ask “Why didn’t you do it sooner?”
Please allow me to elaborate.
In the first place, in this particular regard, I had no desire to change my life. Since I was a boy, I have subscribed to my dad’s philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Being blessed with an eidetic memory, I can still recall the phone number I grew up with in Atlanta. I can still dial the number our family had in Woodstock for 30 years. Until last week, I could recite the number I have had here in The Possum Den for the last eleven years with only one “uh” preceding it.
I have written here in the past about my warm, close personal friends, the Hindu telemarketers. About seven years ago, Miz Possum filled a single prescription through an online pharmacy. She never got a refill, and quickly found other economically feasible ways to obtain the medications she required. However, our number got into an online database, and all Hell started from there.
Beginning in mid-2003, people started calling The Possum Den asking to speak with her. These people had funny Indian accents, and often referred to “her prescriptions [as being] ready.” Since Miz Possum had gotten into the wind in the fall of that year, I began telling the callers that she didn’t live there, and requesting they remove my number from their database.
The calls continued. I tried being polite. Then I began asking for supervisors, and was told several times “I am
the supervisor.” I kept telling them to drop my number from their database, and received a mixture of promises to do so, and dead-air-blank non-replies. The calls continued, sometimes three or four per day as the end of the month approached. I resorted to rudeness, then profanity as they persisted. Often I hung up wordlessly. Nothing worked.
In 2004, a friend suggested I sign on at the Federal “Do-Not-Call” registry. I went to their website, read all the fine print, and did so. One of the two loopholes in the registry was that—at the time—if you had ever done business with a company, they had the right to circumvent the rules and continue to call you. (This has since been revised to anyone you have done business with in the past 18 months, but in my case, the damage was done.)
The calls continued unabated. I reverted to being polite, wheedling company names and bogus call-back numbers out of the telemarketers. I wrote these down, and promptly filed complaints at the do-not-call registry [DNCR]. I hoped the other loophole was not as drastic as I interpreted it to be: The DNCR is an adjunct of the Federal Trade Commission; while assuming FTC jurisdiction over telemarketing, the website proclaims that filed complaints will be referred to “local authorities” for “further investigation.” (I read this correctly to mean that nothing would be done.)
Two years later, I gave up filing complaints. I recorded a terse message on my answering machine suggesting that “online drug peddlers hang up now” and took to screening my calls accordingly. The system worked moderately well, but I have that instinctive reflex to answer the phone on the first ring. When the Hindus would stumble onto me, I would ask for the name of their company, and then ask for the spelling. I’d then tell them I wanted my information to be correct when I filed my complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for their violation of the DNCR. They laughed and kept calling.
In 2008, I called a firm—as advertised on TV—called The Scooter Store. The neuropathy in my legs is easily compensated by a standard, no-frills wheelchair, but those power chairs look mighty comfortable. I don’t believe in abusing my health care insurance, but I thought it might be worth taking a swing at one if it could be had for cheap. I called them with a polite inquiry. They asked me for a minor profile—things like my full name, address, verification of my disability, etc.—and I conducted business with a sales rep after several assurances that data collected on me was safeguarded and would go no further. It turned out that I did not qualify for the power chair. I thanked the sales rep for his time, told him perhaps we could do business in the future, and hung up. End of story…right?
Three days later, a man with a Hindu accent called The Possum Den and asked for me by my full name. Now, this is important: I never give my middle name out. It is not on my checks, any of my bank or credit cards, and nowhere online. Yet, out of nowhere, this guy calls and asks for me by my full Christian name.
Instantly wary, I asked him what he wanted. He told me he was with some [bogus name] health care service, and was going to “get me a power chair.” Abandoning all pretenses, I asked him where he got my name and number. “From your online profile” he replied. “What online profile?” I shot back. “With The Scooter Store,” he said. “We are affiliated with them.”
I flat out told him he was a liar, and in possession of stolen information. He tried to argue the point, but gave up when I told him the information was either hacked by someone and sold to him, hacked by people he worked with, or had been sold to him by a loose-cannon employee of The Scooter Store. I gave him a come-to-Jesus message about losing the data immediately or face investigation by the FTC. I then filed an online complaint with the DNCR and sighed, knowing nothing would result.
Two days later, I received a similar call. We went through the motions again. I then called The Scooter Store, explained the situation, and got through to one of their security people. Ignoring his protestations that their firewalls were superb, I informed him he was hacked or they had a rogue employee. I then asked that my profile be deleted from their database. When he said they routinely keep them for seven years, I asked for a supervisor. My profile was subsequently dropped, and calls directed at me specifically ceased. However, the calls for Miz Possum continued. Her thyroid medicine was ready. Her muscle relaxers were “approved.” Her migraine medicine was ready. I continued to hang up, bluff, or actually file unrequited complaints at the DNCR.
Starting a few weeks ago, just after Christmas, the calls quadrupled in volume. I once again began earnestly keeping a log and filing complaints. The calls were becoming increasingly hostile and aggressive, and began to extend far beyond peddling ersatz prescription drugs.
Okay, shift gears. I can hear it now, as though you are shouting through my computer’s speakers: “WHY DIDN’T YOU CHANGE YOUR PHONE NUMBER?”
This goes partly to that personal philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but it goes beyond that. Changing my phone number is a change in my life, albeit a mundane one. If I choose to make a change in my life, however minor, I will do it if I consider it worthy. If someone else seeks to induce a change in my life where I consider none to be necessary, I begin to resist. The harder they push, the more I dig in. If a terrorist can force you to change the way you live by the threat of their existence and what they might
do, then they win. They don’t need to set their underwear on fire, or topple buildings and kill people. By their very existence, they threaten or intimidate you, and force you to react to a perceived threat. This is the power of Al Qaeda, and to a lesser degree, it is the same dynamic empowering telemarketers.
On Tuesday, 5 Jan 2010—just last week—things came to a head. The second telemarketer of the day called on or about 1310. [1:10 p.m. for you non-military types.] He asked for Miz Possum, and launched into a scripted spiel about “approved prescriptions.” Buying a moment while I reached for pen and paper, I asked him to repeat the name of his company. It was originally “Health Services Network”, but when I asked him to repeat it, he spoke to someone next to him in the room in Hindi—or some unintelligible language—and then told me he was from “Pharmacy RX.” I wrote both down. I took assiduous notes on what followed.
When he launched back into his scripted pitch, I interrupted. “Do you have a callback number?” “Uh, no.” “You’re a legitimate business, but you don’t have a telephone number?” “I, uh, can give you our 800 number…” “Please do,” I implored.
Unbeknownst to him, Miz Possum was listening on the extension. As I wrote the number down, she grabbed her cell phone and punched the number in. She told me later that it was a non-working number. As the man resumed his sales rap, I interrupted again. “Slow down, hoss. Do you have a street address?” “Huh?” “Where are you?” “I am in Denver.” “No, where’s your company located?” After I repeated the question twice, he gave me a bogus address in Corona, California. Then he lit the fuse.
“What do you want this information for?” he asked.
“I want to make sure I have everything correct when I file my complaint with the FTC for your violation of the Do-Not-Call-Registry,” I replied, using my rote response.
He laughed sarcastically, then snarled. “You do that, we will come to your home and shoot you.”
“We will kill you.”
End of fuse. It’s short, and he reached the explosive heart of the matter.
“You ain’t gonna shoot nothing, Buckwheat. That’s a threat.”
“I come to your house, I will f--- your mother, and then I will f--- you. You asshole.”
This is perhaps not the best way to promote your company on the telephone, but it is verbatim. He continued.
“What do you think of that, motherf-----?”
I think I muttered something like “unbelievable!” under my breath. Then I held the receiver out at arms’ length and sounded off in my best drill sergeant voice: “Get off my phone, you heathen Hindu c—ks—er!” and hung up.
Less than thirty seconds later, he called back with more profanity. I hung up instantly. The phone rang again almost immediately. This time, there was silence, but I could hear the ambient background noise of a telemarketing sweatshop. I hung up again. A few moments later, Miz Possum entered the room, crying.
“I stayed on the line for a minute after you hung up on the last one. He said something to somebody next to him, and they laughed.” She dried her eyes, sat down, and told me about the non-working number she’d tried on the first call. “I’m scared,” she said. “Those people are everywhere. He might have friends around here.”
In spite of my seething, I had to laugh. “I don’t think some Hindu with a gun is coming around here, darlin’. Most of them work for a living, running the 7-11 stores or motels or something.” Then I added, “On the other hand, the way I feel right now, I wish one would. I wouldn’t mind killing something about now.”
It was a totally true emotion; an expression of unresolved anger. If someone had talked that way in my face, I wouldn’t be writing this a week after the fact. I’d either be in the hospital or in jail, and my wheelchair would have been no impediment to the fight being on.
After dispensing what comfort and reassurance I could muster, I called the telephone company. The sales rep suggested I activate *77: Anonymous Caller Rejection. Only $3.00 per month, and since telemarketers operate with blocked numbers, it would bounce their calls with a voice message. I cannot make this up: less than five minutes after I activated the gizmo, the phone rang, and a woman with an Indian accent asked me if I was Miz Possum. I murmured “Holy Mother of God” and hung up.
The next morning at 0900, the phone rang, and the same—or a different—Hindu woman asked for Miz Possum. Hanging up without a word, I called the phone company. When I told the service rep the rejection gizmo wasn’t working, she said “Yeah. They unblock their numbers until the line starts ringing, and then reactivate it. They can defeat the application pretty easily.” She suggested I try Caller ID with an enhanced version of the anonymous caller gizmo; only an additional $8.50 per month on the phone bill. I told her to go for it.
At 11:00 that morning, another Hindu called. He didn’t show up on Caller ID or get rejected. I hung up and hit the Internet. I left a message at the DNCR telling them how useless they are. Then I chased their link to the Federal Trade Commission, where I wrote down the chairman’s name and mailing address, and two toll-free numbers: the DNCR “helpline” and the FTC “helpline.” The former turned out to be an automated complaint-filing adjunct to the website; no live people available there. After wading through a horribly frustrating automated menu at the FTC, I finally reached a live bureaucrat who allegedly took my complaint, then informed me that I should contact my state Consumer Protection Agency [CPA] or the Federal Communications Commission. She graciously gave me numbers for both, wished me good luck, and signed off.
I called the Georgia CPA. The clock-watcher there said they had no jurisdiction over out-of-state telemarketers, and offered me the phone numbers for the FTC and the DNCR “help” lines. When I read them back to her faster than she could recite them, she channeled Bill Clinton with an “I feel your pain” homily. I then called the FCC. After another interminable slog through automated menu redirecting—interrupted once by yet another telemarketer on my call waiting—I got a live person who said they have no jurisdiction over telemarketers, and I should call the Federal Trade Commission. I exasperatedly explained that I’d been here, there and everywhere else, whereupon she suggested I call the Department of Justice and hung up.
At wit’s end, I called the phone company back and asked if anything short of an act of Congress or a court order could persuade them to put a pen-register trap on my line. (That’s a technical term for something that cops and other professional wire-tappers can use with great results in tracking telephone numbers.) This time the service rep told me that they have available a “line trace” service [*57] on a per-use basis. If I hit those three keys while the caller is on, it prints out a record of the call at the phone company office. Unlike *69, which will give you an unblocked number occasionally, the service rep said the trace is universal, immune to blocks, but is only available to law enforcement agencies for complaint follow-ups.
I resolved to do this with the next Hindu who called. In the interest of thoroughness, I called the local sheriff’s office, to ascertain if they would follow through on any complaint that I might file with back-up from the phone company. I called the non-emergency number and got a pleasant dispatcher who—judging by the clicking of computer keys—was actually recording my litany of woe.
“That’s terrible,” she said when I finished. “Let me switch you to an investigator.”
I listened to the “brrr” of a phone ringing repeatedly. After a while, a menu kicked in telling me I had reached the detective bureau; for so-and-so press “one”, for so-and-so press “two”; up through four. I chose a name at random and pressed a number, whereupon a phone rang for a while, and I went to voice mail. I hung up and called the non-emergency number to speak with the dispatcher again. Instead, I got an automated menu telling me to hang up and dial 911 if it’s an emergency, or press 2 for the investigators. I did so, chose another name at random, and went to voice mail. I repeated this process twice more, until I had exhausted my options with reaching detectives. Nobody home. This is the same sheriff’s department that refused to investigate an assault I endured in August 2008, and they hushed up a break-in at the civic center last Thanksgiving. No crime in Union County, Georgia occurs unless they say it did.
That was the end of the story. Although it was, by then, late in the afternoon, I managed to raise a live person at the phone company. After reciting my problems one last time, I sighed.
“That’s it,” I said. “I give up. They win.” I then informed her that I wanted to change my telephone number. The service rep was very gracious and helpful; TDS Telecom is a pretty darn good company, and I’ll gladly plug their name here. My number was changed in five minutes, and because of the abuse, the normal service charge and three-day waiting period was waived. TDS is a national company; if you have them as an option to whatever service you currently use, I recommend them.
I now have an unpublished phone number that was easy to memorize. I am re-registered at the Do-Not-Call Registry, for all the good that does. I got rid of the worthless Caller ID and the other gizmo, because I’m old-fashioned and like surprises when I pick up the receiver and utter my monosyllabic “Yes?”
I know this is childish, but I took great delight over the weekend when I called my old phone number and heard the “no-longer-in-service” message. I pictured the Hindus grinding their teeth, and felt less like a loser.
There are two points to this 3,000-word story:
1: The Do-Not-Call Registry—a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Federal Trade Commission—is as useless and impotent as every other federal agency. In an age where far too many people are willing to trade freedom for “security”—and thus receive neither from the nanny state—self-sufficient people with an ounce of common sense should draw a lesson from this.
2: These are the people that 40% of the population wants to administer their health care. We’re talking about a bunch of worthless, lazy, pass-the-buck bureaucrats who can’t even stop pestiferous telemarketers from becoming junior-league terrorists who deliver threats and scathing profanity with impunity over the public utilities, but they’re going to make life-and-death determinations about the priority and efficacy of your medical treatment. They’re going to fine you for not buying services that the New Reich mandates, and pick your pocket to pay for the aggrandizement of their social experiments.
I’m currently holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m waiting for the phone to ring at any hour of the day or night, and when I answer, some critter with a Black-Hole-of-Calcutta accent will proclaim “Ah ha! We found you! Is Miz Possum there?”