All Those Hang-ups
 Might Be A Computer Calling
The Boston Globe
April 21, 1997
c.1997 The Boston Globe

BOSTON -- It's annoying, at best, to answer the phone and hear just the click of a hang-up. And hang-ups that go on day after day, often showing up as silent messages on an answering machine, quickly escalate from irritating to ominous.

But the culprit may be just a telemarketer's computer.

In an effort to boost efficiency by weeding out busy signals, answering machines, and no-answers, most telemarketers use computers to dial phone numbers.

When the computer reaches a consumer, it routes that phone call to a sales representative. But if all the salespeople are busy on other lines, the computer simply hangs up.

``It can appear like a stalking call,'' said Lois Bond, who was unnerved by repeated hang-up calls this winter. ``If you are someone who is not aware of telemarketing techniques, you don't think it's a computer.''

Nynex spokeswoman Betsy Bottino said that of the 5,000 complaints logged each week at the company's annoyance call bureau, about 600, or 12 percent, are related to hang-up calls they suspect are related to telemarketers' computer callers.

Over two months, Bond said, she received as many as five hang-ups a day. She worked with the telephone company and police, but the calls could not be traced, usually a sign that they were computer-generated. The calls stopped in January, she said.

As director of Elder Services in Reading, Mass., she often hears complaints from senior citizens about hang-up calls, and now she urges them to consider the possibility that a telemarketer's computer is to blame.

Chet Dalzell, spokesman for the national Direct Marketing Association in New York, described the hang-ups as a ``technology glitch'' that comes about when computers are calibrated in an overly aggressive way, so they reach more consumers than the sales representatives can handle.

He said responsible telemarketers need to adjust the computer so it does not overload the sales representatives. ``Marketers are not intending to put fear in the minds of consumers,'' he said.

Dalzell said the computers, called predictive dialers, are used by the overwhelming majority of telemarketers dealing with consumers, an industry that had $169 billion in sales last year.

The hang-ups may be an unintended consequence of 1992 federal reforms designed to protect consumers from another irritation -- a computer's synthesized voice speaking or leaving a message.

The reforms, of which Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) was the prime author, mandated that telemarketers had to connect consumers to a real voice if the company did not have a preexisting relationship with the customer. Therefore, once the computer connects to a potential customer, it must disconnect if a salesperson is not available.

While one solution would be to force telemarketers to dial their own calls, Colin Crowell, a Markey aide, said a ban on computer-assisted calling is unlikely. "You can't prohibit the way someone dials the phone,'' he said.

He said, however, that Markey's office would be interested in hearing about such problems and possible solutions.

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