A modern-twist on the old snake-oil salesmen
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 May 2018)

The phone rings through the house and you answer it even though you don't recognize the number on the call display. Could be anybody. You think at first the caller has made a mistake, but if you're experienced you know different. You've once again been the victim of a robocall, this era's most widespread aural annoyance, the up-to-date version of the snake-oil salesman who annoyed our grandparents.

Billions of robocalls are made every year from unknown locations around the world, at little cost. The price of international phone calls, bought in bulk, is approaching zero. So professional robocall generators can contact unlimited numbers of prospects like you at about one cent per call. This enrages most of us for the sake of the few successful sales calls made to a minuscule group. Stay on the line for a minute or two and often a telemarketing specialist will pitch you on the virtues of buying solar panels or a time share. You will be offered debt relief at a low interest or a dandy system to clean an air conditioner.

Hucksters are always with us. When not knocking at the door or bleating through broadcast commercials, they're sneaking up on us along the phone lines. If you're infuriated, you can't bother them as much as they bother you. (They're quite accustomed to having profanity screaming in their ears. Goes with the job.)

But someone found a creative answer. Adweek magazine announced this triumph with a striking headline: "Man Creates Obnoxious Robot to Trick Telemarketers in Brilliant Quest for Revenge." Roger Anderson, a telephone engineer in Southern California, had suffered enough. He programmed a robot, later a series of 10 robots, to drive telemarketers crazy.

His robots pretend to be interested customers. When the pitch is being delivered they respond with brief comments like "maybe" or "see what you mean." Sometimes they create interruptions. "Oh jeez, hang on, there's a bee on my arm," the bot says at one point. "You keep talking, say that part again."

Sometimes Anderson's bots keep his prey going for half an hour before they realize they are talking to a non-human. Anderson now sells his robot-created tapes to others who want to seek their own revenge. He now has thousands of subscribers to the Jolly Roger Telephone Co. In this field an unwritten rule says that any service to defeat robocalls must have a name that is either violent or cute. RoboKiller is threatening. One system is called CAPTCHA, another is Nomorobo. A Canadian operator accused of violating the rules gave his name as Pierre Poutine.

In Canada, the CRTC deals with robocalls and works with the FCC in Washington. Both of them maintain Do Not Call Lists that should save us the bother of dealing with unwanted solicitations. In theory they protect the consumer, but in practice they are more often ignored than obeyed. Duplicitous calls are different. In 2015, the CRTC fined a Florida company $200,000 for robocalls that offered a free Caribbean cruise in exchange for answering a survey. It wasn't free, of course, and the company agreed to pay the fine and end its robocalls.

In the early days of robocalls, Jerry Seinfeld (that alert student of contemporary attitudes) defined the grievance so many feel about the thoughtless way telemarketers waste the public's time. In his series, a telemarketer is asking Seinfeld to switch telephone companies. Seinfeld asks for the man's home phone number so he can call him back at a more convenient time. The telemarketer says that's not allowed. "Oh, I guess you don't want people calling you at home?" says Seinfeld. "Well, now you know how I feel."

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image