By Damien Cave

By Salon Staff

Published May 14, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

Read the story:

Damien Cave's analysis of the telephone market was right on regarding the basic facts. However, I think that he was wrong in presenting the issue as "free market vs. regulation." The phone market is not a free market; it is a simulation of a market built on top of a natural monopoly.

Cave pointed out that the telephone market can be frustrating for consumers because "telephone service is ... initiated and authorized outside a customer's purview." In most cases, the cost of making a connection between a vendor and a consumer occurs with each transaction. However, with telephones, laying down wires is very expensive, and once the connection is made, it is essentially permanent. This large one-time cost discourages multiple connections; this is a natural monopoly.

In a natural market, every time a consumer made a call, he would be free to choose the carrier, and the consumer would complete the physical connection that initiated the exchange. Imagine that each house had multiple phone jacks, each connecting to a different service provider, and the consumer simply plugged in to the one he wanted.

The best way to improve the free-market simulation of telephone service would be to make it more like going to the grocery. Perhaps we could start by alerting the consumer as to what he is buying when he picks up the phone. When I make a call from a pay phone, a recording identifies who is carrying my call. I suspect that we can have that on our home phones, along with a notice of what rate we will be paying for that particular phone call.

Access to information is the cornerstone of an ideal market. A little voice saying "AT&T, 10 cents per minute" may be part of what a good market in telephone service sounds like.

-- Adam Retchless

Damien Cave wonders in his article "Slammed!" whether telemarketers are a necessary evil of the free-market system. I try to make it my business to reduce telemarketing using market forces, and you can, too -- just make it as unprofitable as you can.

Waste their time! Make a game of it. See how long you can keep them on hold. Every second they're on the line with you, they're bleeding money and not calling other customers. Ask them to repeat their whole pitch because you weren't listening -- several times. If you want to really make a difference, demand to talk to their more highly paid supervisor so you can waste even more of their money.

The more we all do this, the less effective telemarketing is, and the less companies will be willing to do it. So remember: Don't just hang up. Say "Can you hold?" and then set down the phone and come back 10 minutes later.

-- Sam Lindsay-Levine

I totally agree with Damien Cave that slamming and telemarketing are enraging. But I don't agonize over the question of whether being abused by MCI is somehow the inevitable price of "cheap" long distance. It clearly is not inevitable, and their long distance is anyway not cheap.

When I signed up for MCI, I found myself bombarded with deceptive telemarketing calls from companies that MCI had sold my name to. And I kept wondering about these "federal access charges" and such. Every monthly bill had some nickel and dime mischarges adding up to a dollar or two, and when I called to get them removed I would end up spending 45 minutes or more listening to "Your call is important to us," after which someone would answer the phone saying, "My system is backing up. What general questions of yours may I answer?"

I am surprised Damien didn't find the quick solution: When asked what long-distance provider you want to use, answer "none." And then whenever you need to make a long-distance call, dial 101-6868 first. The dial-around provider PT-1 offers interstate calls at 7.9 cents a minute flat rate and no B.S.

Even that is not cheap enough. Now I live in England and pay only 4.5 cents a minute to call the U.S. When traveling in Australia, I bought phone cards that let me call America from pay phones for only 5 cents a minute!

The moral is that the supposed benefits to consumers of doing business with some suspicious corporation like WorldCom just aren't there.

-- Brad Hall

I have long since decided that telemarketers deserve no politeness. I did not give them my number, nor did I invite them to call. Dinnertime, early weekend mornings, during favorite TV shows, they call at all hours. If my caller ID says "Unknown" I won't even pick it up anymore, and I use the anonymous-call eject feature. I can't think of anyone who needs to contact me anonymously who I'd actually want to hear from.

If they manage to get me to answer, as soon as they ask for me by last name, I know what's coming. Once they start their pitch and I'm sure it's a sales call, I hang up. Without even bothering to say goodbye, either. It is a new etiquette: They have purchased my number and are using it without my consent to interrupt my life, to sell me things I don't want. They don't deserve the politeness my parents taught me, and are indeed trying to take advantage of that.

Telemarketers: Just say "Click."

-- Eric Berger

So Damien Cave has learned this: "The next time a telemarketer calls, I'll be far less courteous. I'll say 'hello,' followed by a simple goodbye -- the cold click of a phone slammed down. It's a new, deregulation-inspired etiquette: Call it 'free market' manners."

That makes him about 18 years behind the curve with his "new etiquette." Don't like telemarketers? Screen your calls, or pay for CallerID service. And don't slam the phone -- that's just wasted effort that maybe damages your own equipment. A simple "Not interested" followed by an immediate disconnect is sufficient.

-- Tom Gillespie

The best conclusion that (I forget the author's name, and with Salon's letter form you can't check the story you're writing about -- argh!) reached in his telecom-slamming article was at the very end: Hang up on them.

That's long been the policy in our house: As soon as the pitch begins, interrupt with "No, thank you" and hang up.

My wife goes further: If she picks up the phone and there's an instant of silence on the other end, she assumes it's the slight delay in a telemarketer's automatic dialer and hangs up.

This has some drawbacks -- she kept hanging up on a shy boy who took a moment to get his nerve up when he called our daughter -- but it sure saves time.

Don't argue. Don't wait for a pause to respond. Just hang up.

-- David Brooks

Mr. Cave misses the most important point of how to deal with telemarketers. His conclusion advocates a response that is quite inadequate -- it does nothing to stop telemarketing calls.

The most important thing to do when a telemarketer calls is to say "Put me on your do-not-call list." These magic words will stop the calls -- not all of them to be sure, but it will stop most. By law, any telemarketing firm must keep a do-not-call list and retain the list for 10 years. Hanging up won't get you on the list. Requesting to be placed on it will.

So, when a telemarketer calls, say, "Put me on your do-not-call list." Say it every time. It works.

-- Paul Townsend

The theme of the story seemed to be that we (the consumer) are partially to blame for the illegal and unethical behavior of phone companies because we want to save a few dollars.


If corporations want the freedom of capitalist competition, then they cannot whine when they get it. If it is too hard to make money in a market, get out of that market.

-- Richard C. Haven

In Mr. Cave's article on telemarketing and the price we pay for cheaper phone service, he neglected to mention how inexpensive it is to also block telemarketers' calls. Devices such as the Telezapper (which can be purchased for a one-time fee of $50) send messages to computerized call systems alerting the system that your number has been disconnected. Many states also have "no-call" lists, where residents pay a low subscription fee to be taken off telemarketing lists (and the state will fine any telemarketer that does call!). Forget about asking to speak with a supervisor: With the advent of the Telezapper and no-call lists, consumers win, as they continue to get cheaper distance and don't have to deal with telemarketers, either.

-- Erica Haas

A few years ago, I woke to the sound of my phone ringing. I had just gotten it hooked up about a week prior. I answered it and was greeted by the friendly voice of a telemarketer claiming to represent MCI. She asked me if I wanted to have my long-distance service switched over. My family used the "friends and family" plan for long distance, so I had been thinking about having it switched anyway.

I told her yes.

The reason I had the phone hooked up in the first place was to use the Internet. The best Internet service provider I found was located all the way across Chicago-land, probably about a 2-hour drive from my house. But it was in the same area code, so my local toll-call package from the phone company let me pay $20 a month for 200 calls.

When I received my first bill a month later, the amount on it said $1,600! I actually laughed at the ridiculous mistake. I called up the phone company and realized that it wasn't a mistake.

It took me a few more calls to realize that I had been "slammed" (although I didn't know there was a word for it back then). I called Ameritech (the phone company, now an SBC company), and MCI, but it was like running up against brick walls. They actually wanted their money. I tried to cut deals with them, I sent letters of dispute to MCI and was met with rejections.

Now it's six years later and I still owe MCI something like $2,400. I vowed I would never pay it.

After reading this article and realizing that this is a widespread problem, I might try to muster up enough of that old bitterness and try to get something done about it.

Thanks for the information.

-- Josh Taillon

Beyond hanging up the phone, there's a simple way for consumers to protect themselves against slamming: Simply call your local phone company and tell them to put a PIC freeze on your line. That means no one can change your choice of carrier.

Unfortunately, you have to do this for your long-distance carrier, your local toll carrier, and now with local competition, probably for your local carrier too.

Call the business office of your local phone company and take a few minutes to do this. Could save lots of hassle later.

-- Michael Keady

Salon Staff

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