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November 16, 2007

Ghost Calls — 'The phone rings. But no one is there.'


So began Peter Wayner's entertaining story in yesterday's New York Times about how the law of unintended consequences applies to telemarketers and ends up annoying you — the very person the latest regulations were intended to shield.

Here's the article, which contains useful information about how to counter such calls.

    Battling Ghost Calls, That Telemarketing Annoyance

    The phone rings. But no one is there.

    Ghost calls have long been a staple of horror movies and urban legends about frightened baby sitters. Ray Bradbury wrote a teleplay about a telephone switch that reached sentience only to start stalking a person.

    But the culprit behind what is becoming a common occurrence in some households may have a less than otherworldly explanation. More often than not it is a telemarketer — and one that complies with federal regulation. Indeed, adherence to the rules may be one reason for the ghost calls.

    Most fingers point at telemarketers who use a predictive dialer, a device that makes hundreds of calls a minute and uses artificial intelligence to detect when a person actually answers. These are then connected directly to a telemarketer waiting to promote a new low mortgage rate, a political candidate or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If no one in the cubicle farm is ready to start pitching, the predictive dialer just hangs up.

    Rick Morris, the chief operating officer of the predictive dialer company TouchStar, said that dialers are forced to hang up so abruptly by various regulations. He said that if no agent is available within two seconds, the predictive dialer must hang up because the Federal Communications Commission says the dialers cannot monopolize a line.

    “We didn’t want to tie up their line in case of an emergency,” he said.

    Mr. Morris said that its new dialers are smart enough to hang up on less than 2 percent of the calls, a percentage mandated by some state regulations. This number, however, can still be quite high in absolute terms when the call center makes thousands of calls an hour.

    Some consumers are trying to find out what is behind ghost calls by collecting data. When Michael Hirsch, a Webmaster for a local government Web site in Salisbury, Md., gets ghost calls, he logs his experiences on whocalled.us, one of a number of Web sites devoted to unraveling the mystery of the calls.

    “I’ve had my phone number 20 years, and I’m very seriously thinking of changing it,” he said with the frustration of a man who has been interrupted too often.

    Whocalled and similar sites like 800notes.com or numberzoom.com collect notes from anyone who received a phone call and wants to know a bit more about the number on the caller ID screen. Whocalled has logged almost 400,000 calls and identified about 92,000 numbers. Mr. Hirsch said he is planning on hooking up the Web site to his computer to filter out the worst offenders.

    The postings about one of the top offenders at whocalled.us, 859-212-1501, show that hundreds of people have received a confusing message in Spanish from that number. The caller hangs up on the people who respond in English.

    Numbers that begin with 859-212 are normally located in Boone County, Ky., but the callers could be located anywhere in the world thanks to modern phone switches. Several calls to the number showed that it had been disconnected.

    Julia Karelina and Mike Bravo started 800notes.com, a site that tracks ghost calls as well as known swindles and unsolicited faxes. Ms. Karelina said she is proud that the site recently persuaded a nonprofit group to fire a telemarketer after the organization noticed all the complaints on the site.

    Because the predictive dialers try to identify answering machines by measuring the amount of time that someone or something speaks, one way to defeat them is to give a long greeting, as an answering machine does, rather than a simple hello followed by a pause.

    Mr. Hirsch follows up his posts to whocalled.us with complaints to the local Better Business Bureau and state regulators. He includes the phone numbers and addresses of these groups in his posts to the site so that others who visit can file their complaints with ease.

    He remains optimistic about his chances, saying, “It’s so new that people don’t know that they can go there and put in their experiences and find out that others are having the same problems. If we don’t nip it in the bud, it will escalate just like e-mail spam has.”

    No one knows how the battle between the humans and technology will play out. In Mr. Bradbury’s story, the man tracking the ghost calls traces them to a box on a telephone pole. It electrocutes him.

November 16, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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In the UK you can sign up to the Telephone Preference Service which (after a week or so) stops all cold calls to your number. Very effective, too. We only get perhaps three unwanted calls a year now and they drop the call like a hot brick when you tell 'em you're TPS registered. Supposedly "Market research" is allowed, and there have been times when sales calls have been dressed up as research but it doesn't take long before several complaints to the TPS gets the offending firm told off.

We have the same for junk mail, too. The MPS kills junk mail except from companies with whom you have had a business relationship, but, and here's the clever bit, they have to offer you the opportunity to choose not to receive junk. Again, it works very well, we get no addressed junk mail at all. We get stuff delivered door to door but that's very hard to stop, though it's possible to get the postman to stop, just not "leafleters".

There's a simliar system for fax, too, though fax is a dying art anyway. Just a shame there isn't one for email!

Posted by: Skipweasel | Nov 18, 2007 5:18:28 PM

I just screen incoming calls. Problem solved, 'cuz my friends know this, and if someone isn't willing to leave a message, then it must not be important.

Posted by: origamifreak | Nov 16, 2007 9:43:15 PM

"Mr. Morris said that its new dialers are smart enough to hang up on less than 2 percent of the calls, a percentage mandated by some state regulations. This number, however, can still be quite high in absolute terms when the call center makes thousands of calls an hour."

I believe the national law is 3%, and regardless of what any Mr. Morris has stated, generally these are well above 5% in violation of the law. I don't believe anyone has it right...

Either way, anyone trying to sell me anything should be prepared for a long string of obscenities. I had one that was so irked by this he started calling me on his personal phone. I have a knack for finding someone weak spots and exploiting them, and I seriously think this guy wanted to do me harm. Ended up calling the police with several recordings and let them know who he worked for and never got anything else.

99% of the time, however, the caller has no access to anyone's number because of this predictive dialer....thank garwd because these things are staffed by some eff'n psychos.

Posted by: clifyt | Nov 16, 2007 4:22:22 PM

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