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?"
"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
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
"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
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
* "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
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
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.