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pirates on the horizon
slamming back at phone scam operators
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)
4.28.03
advertising


I’ll admit it. I’m a complete airhead when I’m on deadline. Swallows dart through the cavernous space left behind as the 5.7% of my brain actually functioning concentrates on one thing: writing.

I’m a police-tape draping, headphone-wearing, manic gum-chewing writer, too. A handful of pistachio nuts is lunch. I’ve been up since 5:00 a.m. and haven’t brushed my teeth and it’s now 1:30 p.m. If I’m on deadline and, in my misunderstood creative-genius way, have procrastinated up to the finite minute, all normal processing phasers are set on stun and Scotty’s givin’ it all she’s got to the wordsmithing warp core.

The phone is off too, unless I’m expecting a call I need to complete the task.

Which is why I blame myself for being a tottering imbecile when the phone rang a couple of months ago and I, thinking it was a client with the 23rd revision results, answered. Instead, I hear “Dick” say “Hi – this is “Dick” at Advantage Telecom, I’m calling on behalf of Quest, your local carrier, and I’d like to talk with you about consolidating your local and long distance phone bills. We just need to verify some information.”

Um –type, type, type– okay. Consolidation of bills. Quest. Gotcha. Type-type-type. Owning an atom-sized business means you can’t bunt these kind of calls to your “office manager.” You sigh, hold onto the strap as the creative train lurches to a screeching halt, and deal with “business.” The home line has consolidated long-distance and local billing, but not on my business line, so I think yeah, it’s about time I did that. One bill. One payment. Easy.

“Dick” continues to describe the convenience of consolidation, that Advantage Telecom is the 3rd party billing company for Quest and they just need a little information to verify. Type-type-type. Name, address, phone nu – and I feel a psychic, cynical bap to the head. “Wait. If you’re going to consolidate my long distance and local bills, and you got my number from Quest, why do you need all this information? If you’ll be doing the billing, you should have all this already from Quest.” Oh yes ma’am. We just need to have you verify it for our records.

Oh. Okay. Type-type-type.

Now you understand that this will consolidate your local and long-distance carriers, and you’re agreeing to let Advantage Telecom do this, right? Yeah, yeah. Type-type-type. Prior to the recorded verification process, “Dick” gives me an 800 number for Advantage Telecom and says, “Now, just answer yes to everything. They don’t have time to waste and get a little miffed if this process takes a long time.”

Uh, okay. Typing stops.

The verification asks are you the owner, address, phone number and then mother’s maiden name. “What do you need that for?” To make sure we know it’s you, ma’am. “No – I won’t give you that.” Birthdate then. It’s public information, whoopee, so fine. Verification is complete, thank you, goodbye.

I hang up and think, “Damn – I’ve just been scammed.”

I get up, brush my teeth and try the 800 number the telemonkey gave me, but they’re livin’ on Eastern time and the offices are closed. I try the verification company, and they are so sorry, they can’t provide any information for me at all.

So, being the media courtesan that I am, I call a reporter. “Stella,” I said, “have there been any stories recently about phone scams?” Reporters are a funny sort. Dangle a leetle, teeny smattering of scandal in front of them, and their ears perk up like an aye-aye on a nocturnal raisin rampage. Stella promises to check on it.

Within minutes, she completes a story with a Quest representative, who warns of phone scam operators laying siege on many customers, claiming to consolidate bills but instead switch long-distance. Quest doesn’t have any need for 3rd party billing, as they do that processing and, by the way, bills can always be consolidated. For free. No verification required.

My my, aren’t my dumb bunny ears cute, pink and fuzzy?

The next day, I’m up the stairs and outta the pink like Ralphie. One call to Advantage Telecom, where I speak to a lady with a K name. “A representative for your company misrepresented your services, and I need to cancel the account.” Oh, we are so sorry – that’s been happening a lot lately. I provide name of telemonkey, my phone number, and she says the account will be canceled that afternoon. I dust my hands off. That was easy.

Again with the psychic, cynical bap.

I call Quest, explain that I may have been phone scammed – what can I do to keep them from switching my long-distance carrier? Oh, do a pic freeze on the account, and that way, we require written permission to switch the account. The date was January 17th, and they said it would take 2-3 business days for it to take effect. Do it. Done.

On March 3rd, I receive a convenient consolidated bill from Quest – and Advantage Telecom. My phone bill, which averages $35 a month, totals $123.14, with all the additional taxes, fees, switching charges, slices to Tony Soprano and charitable donations to the Lemurs with Lisps foundation.

Foam. At the corner of my mouth.

I call Advantage Telecom and speak to a lady with an M name and say, “Hi – I canceled my account with your company on January 17th, a mere 24 hours after your telemarketer misrepresented your company and told me you do bill consolidation. Imagine my surprise to receive a bill for $123.14. I’m not paying it, and I want to confirm the account has been canceled.” Oh. Um. Well, we still show your account as active. Who did you talk to? We have no record of that call. One moment please.

At no time in almost six weeks did I receive any information from Advantage Telecom indicating I had an account with them. No discussion of rates. No special packages. No account number.

Sonja Bly gets on the phone and says, “This is Sonja - what do you want?”

I draw my sword.

In my usual, crisp, professional tone, I explain again: a telemarketer misrepresented your company’s services. I canceled the account. “We have no record of that.” Well, I did and I’m not happ- “Look, I don’t have time for this. What do you expect me to do?” I expect you to rectify a customer’s complai- “I don’t have to listen to this. What do you want?” I’m trying to tell you what I want – you had a telemark- “Yeah, yeah, that’s what you say. I don’t have time for this.” If you’d stop interrup- “Fine. Speak. Go ahead. Are you taping this call?” No, but I can if you want me to. “I don’t have time to talk to people like you.” And I don’t have to pay a bill on an account I canceled before charges were- “That’s your prerogative, ma’am.” It’s also my prerogative to report you to the State Attorney General’s office, which I’m doing right now.

Click.

The quotations have been emphasized to reflect the absurdity. This was the actual owner of the company, speaking to a customer.

While calling the Better Business Bureau will log a complaint or concern on a bastardized company, the Bureau will not take action. The State Attorney, however, loads the cannons.

The State Attorney General’s office has a smooth operation in the Iowa Utilities Board. Their representative immediately informed me they’ve had many complaints regarding Advantage Telecom’s telemarketing practices and the company has been warned before. The representative was efficient, polite and patient as I unfurled the history of events and dialogue as best as I could recall. Seeing as I had considered this matter resolved weeks before, I had sketchy notes.

But I did have copious amounts of full-drawn conviction. “It’s not about the money,” I told the Board. “I won’t pay it and they can take me to small claims court if they want. I know I canceled the account and I have a record of a pic freeze established the same day. It’s about them calling some little old lady in Bixby, Iowa and doing the same thing to her. They’re relying on people not paying attention and using bait and switch to get business. It’s unethical.”

The process of resolution began. This recount is a highly diluted version. There were also myriad “um, excuse me, but how did you mess up here?” calls to Quest, my previous long-distance company, back and forths with the IUB, examination of an obviously edited verification tape.

The day after the conversation with the phone pirate, she leaves a message on my answering machine, apologizing for her “unprofessional behavior”, crediting my account in full and oh, by the way, could you tell me what that telemarketer said?

Sorry. Tried to. Now you’re going down. I don’t return the call.

Within days, the Iowa Utilities Board filed a resolution on the case with Advantage Telecom. Bly responds, stating she never said she didn’t have time to listen, that I was “crass” and she wasn’t going to take my verbal abuse. She lies. I say so. The Board agrees, and also finds the verification tape inadequately worded to reflect the telemonkey’s pitch. The pirate also does not deny what I said about the telemonkey’s pitch. The Board demands restitution and warns Advantage Telecom about their telemarketing practices.

Then the consumer advocate lawyer calls.

I don’t type. I listen very carefully. He slings phrases like imposing civil penalty and call to witness and the fraud vitiates any authorization. Would I witness? “Will it cost me anything?” No. Okay. Let’s do it.

I, along with collected others, am now involved in a civil battle against Advantage Telecommunication Company for their slamming practices.

Had the company listened to my initial complaint about the telemarketer, I would be like any other native on the beach. I wouldn’t have noticed the skull and crossbones on the flag, or the battlements at the ready. They would have let me keep my gold pieces and sailed away, and I would have no need to alert the village on the other sandbar of their ominous presence.

Now, they will slowly sink, and I will watch from a safe harbor and laugh.


ABOUT TRACEY L. KELLEY

Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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COMMENTS

matt morin
4.28.03 @ 1:15a

This is one reason that when I pick up the phone and hear, "Hello Mr. Morin? I'm "Dick" from AT&T and..." I interrupt, say "I'm not interested, thank you." and hang up without ever waiting for a reply.

If there's a phone service I want, I'll call them. If they have some new great deal, you'd better believe I'll get some junk mail about it which I can read through at my leisure.

Same thing when credit card companies call.

robert melos
4.28.03 @ 1:18a

You go girl! This is one of the reasons I now hang up on telemarketers after snarling a surly "No! I don't want your lousy service!"

Never trust these phone vampires. My mother got suckered into something similar through Verizon. Her bill doubled, plus the fees to change everything. I didn't handle it as well as you.

tracey kelley
4.28.03 @ 9:41a

I hope Stella can log on at some point and share her story of when she tried to interview the owner of Advantage Telecom. It's a comedy of errors, that's for sure.

I have a problem hanging up on people right away because of some of the U of M research I do - people automatically think I'm a telemonkey when I make some calls and it's so frustrating to be hung up on right away. So I guess I'm more lenient in answering and giving someone 10 seconds to make a point.

Especially on my business line - I can't just hang up everytime a stranger calls, you know?

sarah ficke
4.28.03 @ 10:35a

Tracey, I'm coming to this column for inspiration if I ever need to kick some ass.

I can't imagine the nightmare of trying to deal with this kind of scam. I have enough problems with my real phone company fucking up the bills.

adam kraemer
4.28.03 @ 10:48a

I usually listen to what people have to say - it's not their fault they need to call me in order to put food on the table - and then tell them that I'm not interested. No sense in being rude because someone's doing a job that they probably hate as much as you hate them calling.

A similar thing happened to me a few months ago - my roommate and I both got voicemails saying, "As you requested, your long distance services has been changed to ... whatever ... please call to verify this is accurate. If you believe this change has been made in error, please call..." and then a bunch of static where the second number should have been. So we called Verizon and made sure that nothing had been changed from their end (it hadn't). Next time, I might consider calling the State Attorney. That's a neat trick.

erik myers
4.28.03 @ 11:06a

No sense in being rude because someone's doing a job that they probably hate as much as you hate them calling.

That's exactly how I feel. They're just doing their job. You can't fault them for it. I'm only rude if they are.

Actually, in terms of the written consent to change long distance carriers: That's something I've done every time I've set up a phone -- since my first where my long distance carrier got changed something like 14 times in the 6 months. My roommates at the time would just get stoned and talk to whoever called, I think. It was crazy.

russ carr
4.28.03 @ 11:23a

Back when I was a lazy college student, I called people who had signed an entry form to register for timeshare tours. The job paid twice as much for half the hours of the job I'd been working, cleaning hotels. I never cared when people hung up on me.

Out of desperation a couple of years later, I tried another telemarketing job, calling for the local fire department. I quit after a couple of hours. There was quite a difference between calling people who'd agreed to be called (even if they didn't recall filling out the form) and cold-calling people at suppertime.

In Missouri, we have a statewide "No Call List" program. We registered with the State AG's office and from that point, 95 percent of telemonkey calls are blocked. If they do call, we get to forward the name of the company to the AG for punitive action. And we have a kick-ass AG. He's the one who put "Miss Cleo" out of business.

As for the handful of bonafide solicitatiors permitted under the law (eg: fire and police groups), I hang up as soon as I hear that pregnant pause after I say hello. I'm not hanging up on a cop or firefighter; all that stuff is contracted out, and I never feel a twinge of guilt.

wendy p
4.28.03 @ 11:37a

A woman in our office used to keep a police whistle by her phone for solicitors who didn't accept her first "No thank you, we're not interested." She says within the first few months, the number of unwanted calls was DRASTICALLY reduced. :)

matt morin
4.28.03 @ 11:57a

Russ, that's what I do - as soon as there's that pause before the telemarketer gets on the line, I hang up.

I don't think it's rude to hang up. I'm just saving them the hassle of trying their pitch on me when I know I'm not interested.

juli mccarthy
4.28.03 @ 11:57a

I figure that I can get away with not donating to the firemen's / cops' funds, because every male on my mother's side of the family is a firefighter or cop. The collective "we" gives enough.

I used to do marketing research over the phone, so I'm sympathetic to telemonkeys. I once had to do a survey for Preparation H on April Fools' Day - you can imagine my success rate. Ditto the time I had to do a coffee survey in Utah. But I draw the line at listening past the intro. I politely say, "Thanks, but I am not interested, please remove me from your calling list." And then I hang up. There are all sorts of FCC (I think it's FCC) regulations regarding tms - they have to give you their company address, they can only call at certain times, they must mail you literature on request, etc., but who the hell wants to sit on the phone and document the violations??

tracey kelley
4.28.03 @ 1:17p

I have no problem with the telemarketing industry in general, truly. As Adam said, sometimes you have to put food on the table. As long as the telemonkey is polite, I'll be polite. But most of them are not. In this case, I truly believe (and have many reasons to believe, based on other information I received from the AG's office) that the poor telemonkey was a pawn of Advantage Telecom's business practices.

That's, obviously, where I draw the line.

We were misled by, of all things, a vacuum salesman once, too. The telemonkey said the visit would be 30 minutes - after an hour and half, we said to the guy "You know, great vacuum, but you really need to get the hell out now." When he found out what the rep told us, he doubled the incentive we received for allowing a home visit. So when we go to Denver in September, we've got a couple of hotel gift certs to use.

We'll probably be sleeping on the roof, but still. Nice gesture.

Prep H on April Fool's Day? Priceless, Juli! I was a telemonkey for an independent insurance agent once. Talk about boring.

Because of the U of M research work, I'm such a sucker for phone marketing surveys. I feel it's karmic retribution.

[edited]

louise arnold
4.28.03 @ 3:48p

I had something similar happen in my old house, except with door to door gas companies instead of phoning. This guy was so hard sell with me and wouldn't go away that I begged a male housemate to get rid of him. He asked for my housemate to just sign a piece of paper to prove he's spoken to us, and then he'd leave us alone.

Yes, alarm bells would have rung for me.

However, after surviving off of coffee and pot for the last few years, my housemate was not quite so finely tuned.

Bam.

Our gas company is changed, with no notification letter. At the end of the quarter we get a gas bill for not £100, but for £450. Only then did I find out about the signing sheet, andI fought about it for quite some time, but in the end I must admit I just gave up :( It's such hard work, and I'm very much in awe of your perseverence!

tracey kelley
4.29.03 @ 1:28p

Katherine, it's funny that you say that. M and I used to be downright rude to some telemarketers - we stole ideas from a comedian who made a CD of all the rude things he would do when telemarketers called: preparing a sperm sample, blood on the floor after a murder when a carpet cleaning company called, all sorts of peculiar stuff.

Not unlike Crank Yankers.

D- They can switch gas companies like that? How on earth can that happen? What are the utilities like over there?

(this is an invigorating discussion, isn't it?)



jeffrey walker
4.29.03 @ 1:47p

How to avoid these messes:

Whenever a telemarketer of any type calls, ask for the information to be sent to you in writing before you agree to anything. Most won't even bother to send you anything, but if they do, you can have something tangible to refer to instead of crying, "but they said something else on the phone."

[edited]

tracey kelley
4.29.03 @ 2:15p

Oh, you're absolutely right. I wouldn't have a proverbial leg to stand on in this situation had there not been other complaints filed about the company already.

However, that being said, since the company did turn around and credit my account, I wouldn't take it this far if I wasn't truthful about he misconception. The lawyer laughed (y'all do that a lot, don't you?) and said, "And fortunately, you're not the only one they've done this to."

I didn't cry. I swore. Often.

I usually do ask for things to be sent to me, with the full intent of getting people off the phone and throwing away said information when it arrives.

The main resolution I've made is that when I'm in serious deadline mode, I'm not answering the phone. The machine can get it, and I can call back. Easy.

jeffrey walker
4.29.03 @ 2:42p

I typically screen calls. It's been a great policy since its institution in my home in 1998.

mike julianelle
4.30.03 @ 1:35a

Caller ID has made naswering the phone almost obsolete in my apt. If we don't recognize the number, we don't answer, and even if we do recognize it, we call back. The only problem is, everyone knows we screen, so they just kepe calling over and over and never leave messages.

tracey kelley
4.30.03 @ 10:49a

We don't have caller ID, but we do have select rings to tell us if the call is long-distance or local.

Not all numbers are registered for caller ID, so I just haven't seen any need for it. The answering machine screens just fine...

...and I HATE it when people don't leave a message. Just let.me.know.you.called. I will call back. Sheeeesh.

erik myers
4.30.03 @ 12:23p

I love Caller ID. 99% of the calls I want to answer come from a number I recognize.

And if not? I'll call back.

But the way I see it, if you don't want to bother to leave me a message, I don't want to bother to talk to you, anyway.

matt morin
4.30.03 @ 2:19p

I hate caller ID. I have my number blocked so people don't know it's me.

michelle von euw
4.30.03 @ 2:29p

I'm with Erik -- Caller ID rocks. My friends have this fabulous service that takes it even one step further. If you block your number, like Matt does, you'd get a recorded message when you call my friend's house that says, "I'm sorry, your number isn't recognizable. Please state your name." Then my friend can either accept or reject the call. She doesn't even have to talk to telemarketers ever again -- lucky her!

heather millen
4.30.03 @ 2:35p

I would never pick up the phone for Matt then. The message "Private Number" translates to "If they really want to talk to me, they'll leave a message."

And then I send them to voicemail. Hell, if I'm wasting my time talking to someone I have no interest in talking to.

jael mchenry
4.30.03 @ 5:00p

My cellphone picked up your number the other day, Matt. Were you calling from your home phone? Cuz if you're paying for the Private Number thing, it's not working.

matt morin
4.30.03 @ 5:20p

I called you on my cell phone (free long distance) and that doesn't have the blocking.

jael mchenry
4.30.03 @ 6:08p

That would explain it.

jeff wilder
4.30.03 @ 11:28p

I remember once when I turned the tables on a telemarketer. It went something like this:

“You haven’t even heard what we’re selling”
“What are you selling?”
“We’re offering fencing for your home”
“Offering what?”
“Fencing”
“Oh. You’re right. This might be interesting. I do have a couple of questions though”
“Sure go ahead”
“Do you use real swords or do you use those kids toy ones?”
“What?????”
“Do you use real samurai swords or do you use kids ones?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You said that you teach fencing. “
“No we provide fencing for your-“
“That’s what I was asking about. Fencing as in Japanese sword fighting”
“Uh, no no sir, this isn’t what we do. “
“You do have the proper insurance don’t you?”
“What do you mean insurance?”
“You know, in the event that a hand or a toe got cut off during the fencing class. They’ll be a lot of medical bills, plus all the blood that would have to be cleaned up. You don’t want to be slapped with a messy lawsuit, do you?”
“No sir, we do not do that!!! This isn’t some sword fighting class; this is a service that provides fencing for people’s houses. I do not think we have what you are interested in!!! Good day! (Slam!)”

tracey kelley
5.1.03 @ 12:37a

THAT is hysterical!!

That's the kind of stuff M* and I would do if the telemonkey was rude. Or he'd start squealing really loud, and I'd say, "Excuse me," then yell, "Shut up FREAK, or I"m throwing you back in the cage!" in a really hick accent.

They'd hang up pretty quickly after that.

greg cunningham
5.3.03 @ 1:20p

As a former telemonkey selling life insurance and diamonds I do have some sympathy for the callers. Most are not crooks and all have really crappy job responsibilities. Caller ID filters out most (I never answer blocked calls) but when I do get tagged I follow 2 rules if I am interested in the pitch/company:
(1) before giving any personal info I ask the caller to send me a company information packet-if they can't-if it's a buy-now-or-lose-it deal I pass on it-If it's not a scam it should be available today and tomorrow.
(2) I ask the caller for a call back number and a full name. If they can't give it to me I pass on it.

But kudos for you Tracey for kicking them where it hurts.

G

tracey kelley
10.3.03 @ 12:28a

Huzzah!

Today I received an update from the consumer advocate attorney.

Advantage Telecom was fined nearly $2,000 and had to provide restitution to all parties involved in the civil suit (I had already received that with the refund of charges, but apparently others had not).

Advantage Telecom did not admit to the allegations, but also did not deny or contest them in order to come to resolution on the matter.

Advantage Telecom has to provide continual proof that they will adhere to and support anti-slamming practices.

If found negligent in the state of Iowa again, they wil be banned from doing business here.

There were 10 other parties involved in the civil suit, 7 of them small businesses, the other 3, the elderly.

If none of us had decided to speak up, Advantage Telecom would still be rail-roading people. Fuckers.

Don't sit back and silently complain. Instigate change.

lisa r
3.30.04 @ 2:52p

The bane of my mother's existence used to be long distance companies. Fortunately for her, turning the tables on them was easy--Dad worked for AT&T and had free long distance. A typical call would go something like this:

Telemonkey: Good afternoon, Mrs. R. We've got the best possible long-distance rates in 3 solar systems.

Mom: You can't beat my long distance rates.

Telemonkey: Oh, yes...we guarantee our rates are lower than anything you possibly could have.

Mom: Trust me, you can't do better than what I've already got.

Telemonkey (starting to audibly sweat): Oh, yes ma'am, I'm positive I can. Just tell me who your company is and what their rate is, I'm sure I can beat it.

Mom: AT&T, and we have free long distance. Now, if you want to offer to pay ME for every long-distance call we make, we might have a deal.

Telemonkey: *gulp* Um, no ma'am, I'm not authorized to make that sort of deal. CLICK

Funny how after a while their number seemed to disappear completely from the long-distance company lists. Now if they could just get rid of the fax machine from hell that keeps calling them on weekends and Tuesday nights.



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