Telling Off Telemarketers

By Mike Royko

Maybe you're changing a diaper, cooking a meal or putting in your contacts. The phone rings, and you stop what you're doing. The call may be important. Then the voice says, "Hi, I'm from the Yacketyyack Corp., and we'd like to know if you are interested…" Another sales pitch.

Or maybe you're at work, as I was when a broker called to offer me a glistening investment opportunity. If I got in early, he said, I could make an awesome profit. I listened, and didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about.

That's part of the scam. They use jargon few of us understand. Basis point? How many normal human beings know what a basis point is? It's M. B. A. talk.

Anyway, the lad made his pitch, and I said, "Sounds good to me. I'll buy several million shares."

There was a gasp from the other end of the line. "How many?" he stammered.

"Several million," I repeated coolly.

By now he was panting. I offered him a deal.

"I'll go for it if you'll sign a paper."

"What kind of paper?" he asked.

"A paper saying that if this investment fails, you will kill yourself."

He sounded stunned. "You expect me to kill myself?"

"Seems reasonable to me," I said. "You're asking me to risk the food on my family's table, the roof over their heads. If this is such a foolproof investment, the least you can do is put YOUR life on the line."

The man actually stuttered. "You have to be kidding," he said.

"I'm not kidding," I told him in a grave tone. "If I can't lose money on this deal, and if you're so kind as to offer it to a total stranger, rather than your own friends and loved ones, stake your life on it."

There was a long pause. Then he said, "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

Now my feelings were hurt. Here was a man trying to persuade me to put the rewards of my labors into an investment, and he was quibbling over a petty detail.

"You won't agree to kill yourself?" I asked.

"That is ridiculous," he repeated.

"So is your pitch," I said.

He hung up. I knew he wasn't sincere.

Is there no defense against these pests? Because we have telephones, must we accept being hassled by people trying to sell us what we don't want? Must we be at the mercy of this enormous growth industry - telemarketing - that is making billions of nuisance phone calls a year, pitching furnace cleaning, aluminum siding and penny stocks?

The answer, I've recently discovered, is no. Robert Bulmash, a former paralegal, has found a way to fight back.

When telemarketers phone him, Bulmash tells them he doesn't want to hear from them again. If they persist, he takes them to small-claims court and seeks compensation for his time and the use of his phone. So far, he has sued six companies. More than a dozen others have sent him checks to settle out of court.

This isn't big money. Altogether, Bulmash has collected about $450 from 15 or so companies.

In one case, against Plan-O-Soft Water Conditioning Co. Inc., Bulmash was making his presentation when the judge said, "Yeah, I was called twice during yesterday's ballgame." Then he awarded Bulmash 97 cents, plus $38 in court costs.

Most people don't have Bulmash's legal savvy or his tenacity. So he's formed a company, Private Citizen Inc., in Naperville Ill., to help others discourage the phone hucksters. For $20, he'll notify over 1100 telemarketers that you don't want to be called. And he'll warn them that if they ignore your request they face legal action. "Once they realize we mean business, they'll think twice about calling," he promises.

Bulmash says he's doing this as much for principle as profit. "The right of privacy is what I'm concerned about. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that the right to be left alone is the one most valued by civilized men. Nowhere is that right more important than at home. Commercialization isn't going to chase me out of my house."

Bulmash has had some success in getting names taken off telemarketer's lists, and he thinks it's worth pursuing. Many of my readers think so too. Some comments:

* "I had a back operation and I'm confined to my home. They call all day."

* My husband works and sleeps at odd hours, and we have a baby. In one day, I received two calls with the 'You have won a free…' pitch."

* "I've always favored a piercing whistle in their ears, but Mr. Bulmash's approach sounds better."

I've also heard from telemarketers who - no surprise - were miffed.

There was the president of a St. Louis telemarketing firm. In a super-salesman's oozy voice, he said, "I don't understand how you can try to censor us. Would you like it if your column was censored?"

I explained the obvious. Nobody has to read my column. I don't call people while they're having dinner and read my column over the phone. I don't awaken strangers who work the night shift and say, "I would like you to read my column." It's there. Read it, ignore it or line your birdcage with it.

Another idiot said, "If you don't like hearing from us, just turn off your phone."

"And what," I said, "if someone is calling to tell me that a loved one had just died? Should I ignore that call in order to avoid you?"

She didn't have an answer.

Another lady who works for a telemarketing outfit said, "You don't understand. I perform a useful purpose. I offer people a free hearing test to see if they need our product, a hearing device."

"Huh?" I said, "Lady, I can't hear you."

She spoke louder. "I said, I offer people…"

Again I said, "Lady I can't hear you. I got bad ears."

"Well, maybe you would be interested in our test."

"Toast? I can make my own toast."

"I said test. Test!"

"You got the best toast? I'm satisfied with my own toast," I said, and hung up.