Blowing the whistle on phone pests

I keep a family heirloom in front of me on my desk in Washington which was used in the streets of Luton in the second world war: an air-raid warden's whistle. I find I use it most between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, because that is when one of the dreaded curses of living in America in the nineties tends to strike: the phone rings, and a "telemarketeer" is on the other end, trying to talk you into opening a new bank account, enrol for a new credit card, have your chimneys swept or donate funds to your favourite charity.

These unwanted calls have driven me to distraction since I've lived here, so now each one (they always arrive, naturally, just as you are up a stepladder changing a light bulb or sitting down to a meal) gets a very loud blast indeed - last heard, for real, in Luton more than half a century ago. They always ring at that time because the callers can expect the man of the house to be in by then - and men still tend to be the main breadwinners and financial decision-makers in most households.

You can't win, though: in the last fortnight I've had two (non-traceable) professional phone solicitors dial me straight back to complain that I had damaged their hearing. Every day, more than 30 million Americans are subject to such calls in what has become a $500 billion business - clearly indicating that not everybody dispatches the telemarketeers in the same way as I do.

It doesn't take long, though, to realise that the culprit is computerisation.

Earlier this year a friend who had been living in New York before moving home asked if he could use my DC address for US mailing purposes; now I find I'm receiving calls not only for him but for his wife, too.

Computerised mailing lists (and there is nobody in America who isn't on one of those) earn big bucks these days - typically, I'm told, changing hands at between 60 cents and a dollar for every name and address; the phone number to match the address will automatically be located by the computer.

Those computers then narrow down an individual's interests and hobbies: the name and address of somebody who has a subscription to a right-wing magazine, for example, is valuable to the Republican Party or other right-wing causes. A sports enthusiast will be singled out by sports goods companies and so on.

As I have subscriptions to just about every magazine known to mankind, my name, address and phone number has clearly shuttled profitably to and from literally scores of commercial mailing lists. I was a regular donor to WETA, the Washington-area public broadcasting radio and television station - ie, a blessedly non-commercial one - but stopped giving them donations when they kept soliciting for more ("surely you can afford more than that?" I was asked contemptuously). Then this summer, someone discovered that WETA had sold its mailing lists to the Democratic Party (donors to public broadcasting stations tending to be Democrats rather than Republicans), which explains why I've since been bothered by Democratic candidates seeking campaign funds. And so the spiral continues, keeping my air-raid warden's whistle busy.

I feel guilty each time I blow it, because the person at the other end is usually some desperate person trying to earn a buck or two; it's just that they've been seduced into a pernicious business.

Typically they operate in droves out of backwood states such as West Virginia and manage to avoid leaving caller ID numbers so that they cannot be traced; friendly Mary-Jo or Bob (fictitious names, of course) may be working for Citibank one evening, WETA the next and a kidney research foundation the next. And, naturally, they are on commission - hence their high-pressure sales techniques, which make the elderly, in particular, vulnerable.

I therefore don't feel too sorry for them, especially now that they are subject to the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which is meant to crack down on the menace. If asked not to call back, they are supposed not to. They mustn't call before 8am or after 9pm, and so on. But it is an act without teeth and most telemarketing companies merely laugh at attempts to combat their methods.

The large and supposedly respectable Citibank Corporation is a major offender which has repeatedly called back when I've asked it (or its telemarketeers) not to; it was also among those who traced my New York friends to my Washington phone number.

The co-founder of a public interest group, Michael Jacobson, received a call from Citibank and told them to place him on their "not-to-call" list. Eight weeks later, his wife answered another call from them. Nearly three months after that, they received a third call - and this time Jacobson took both Citibank and its telemarketeers (an outfit called CUC International) to court under the 1991 act, seeking $2,000 in damages.

Citibank bluffed its way along until a date for a court hearing was set up, at which point the Jacobsons heard from lawyers seeking settlement.

In the end, Citibank agreed to pay them $750 without admitting it had violated the law; Jacobson had to agree not to accuse the company of wilfully breaking it. It therefore took an awful lot of bother - far more than most Americans are willing to take - to achieve only a partial victory.

But I constantly keep my air-raid whistle at the ready. Take this as a warning, Citibank and your agents: next time it will not just be a blast in your eardrums, but a court hearing, too.

And much of America would, I suspect, be cheering me on if I made my small contribution to helping rid the country of this curse in this way.

By Andrew Stephen

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.