Sunday, 1 June 2014

Epimenides calling

Most telephone cold callers are just annoying, but a few have turned their calling into a self-referential paradox. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Cold Call Elimination Team, an outfit that makes its money by cold calling people to sell a service that claims to eliminate cold calls. In a better-ordered world, the entire team would simply disappear in a puff of logic but there's a good reason for the phrase "just world fallacy" and what really happens in our universe is that The Cold Call Elimination Team extract eighty-odd pounds from the bank accounts of that small subset of prospects who are too suggestible, polite, naive, vulnerable or confused to tell phone spammers to stick their offers up their solid waste elimination orifices.

Once The Cold Call Elimination Team have sucked you into their vortex of anti phone spamming phone spamming, what do you get (apart from eighty quid poorer)?

First, your telephone number gets added to an unregulated register which claims to opt you out from receiving unsolicited sales calls (a service which the Telephone Preference Service provides for free, with the important difference that the TPS register is regulated by an actual regulator, Ofcom). Of course, The Cold Call Elimination Team claim that signing up to their register is more effective than joining the Telephone Preference Service. As this endorsement comes from people marketing their own, entirely-free-from-independent-regulation product, I leave it up to you to decide whether it's likely to be a fair and unbiased assessment.

Second, you get a wee box that goes by the name of Call Blocker Pro. As far as I know, this does all the things it claims to do. Unfortunately, those things probably won't help much. Firstly, it can be set to block particular numbers, which might help with repeat nuisance callers who don't disguise their numbers, but if you're being persistently harassed in this way, you want the relevant Citizens' Advice Bureau page, not a little doohickey in a plastic box. But this feature won't deal with a new cold caller with a number Call Blocker Pro doesn't recognise, or one disguising his or her number.

Call Blocker Pro gets round this problem by giving you the option to block all withheld numbers. Unfortunately, some legitimate companies and public sector organisations withhold their numbers, sometimes for perfectly valid reasons, so you might be throwing a small baby out with a large quantity of spammy bathwater. As most people have caller display and voicemail, it's far easier to screen withheld numbers - cold callers will simply ring off, but anyone who genuinely needs to talk can leave a message.

Call Blocker Pro's third major trick is to block international calls - again, fine, so long as you have no friends or family living abroad, but if you do want to speak to Auntie June in Malaga, but not the Non-Existent Computer Virus Rectification Unit in Bangalore, call screening's a well-tested alternative.

If you don't want to give The Cold Call Elimination Team eighty-odd pounds, you can shop around on the Internet and find Call Blocker Pro retailing at a price point of around twenty pounds. Again, I leave it entirely up to you to decide whether the multitude of positive on-line reviews this product has received are the work of savvy, well-informed consumers, very easily pleased ones, or some very busy astroturf-layers. Other boxes with almost equivalent functionality are available.

Other anti phone spamming phone spammers are also available - I'm only picking on The Cold Call Elimination Team because I recently came across one of their customers victims in person. The Telephone Preference service has a list of 'em  here. The dear old Grauniad did an article about it, too, in which they lived up to their nickname, by getting the telecoms regulator Ofcom mixed up with the energy regulator, Ofgem (if they correct that bit by the time you get to it, you'll just have to believe me, as I can't be bothered to do a screenshot).

The worst thing about these companies is that they try to bamboozle the trusting and vulnerable out of cash for little, if any benefit. A lot of the victims tend to be senior. I used to think that as people got older, they all tended to lose their edge, making it easier for charlatans like this to prey on them. If this piece of well-publicised Finnish research has anything in it, though, an alternative explanation presents itself. If cynics are differentially prone to dementia, it may be that phone sharks are preying on naive, trusting older folk because they're the only ones left living independently and answering their own phones, whilst the worldly, cynical ones who'd see through the unsolicited sales patter have long since forgotten who their children are and where they live. Very belated note to Alanis Morisette - that really would be ironic.