For your safety and security

Observations on cold callers

Every week or so I receive an evening telephone call from a credit card company offering to insure me, absolutely free of charge for the first two months and with no obligation whatsoever, against loss of income caused by stroke or fire or earthquake. A welcome pack, sent to my home address, will explain everything about this unbeatable, but only temporarily available, scheme.

The calls always come as I am meeting a deadline or reheating soup (and a soup boiled is a soup spoiled). The callers ask whether another time would be better and I suppose it is a form of cowardice that makes me say it would. I have several patients who are in what is called tele-sales. They are not, on the whole, very happy in their work. To have to make hundreds of calls a day to people unknown, who mostly regard them as a nuisance, is not very pleasant. I don't want to add to their misery by appearing arrogantly unwilling even to hear them out.

But now the callers have invented a new approach. They still come at the wrong time, just as I am leaving for work or going out to dinner. I sometimes wonder whether I am being followed by a video camera, so unfailingly bad is the timing.

"Can I speak to Theodore Dalrymple, please?"

"Speaking."

"This is Grand Capital Investments. We have existing business with you."

"What business? I've never heard of you."

"Before I can go into details, I have to ask you a few security questions."

"Hang on a minute. You called me, I didn't call you. It is I who should be asking you security questions. Who are you? What do you do?"

"I can't tell you anything until I've asked you a few security questions."

It is astonishing how often, these days, repetitious assertion is taken as an argument in itself. It is like buying several copies of the same edition of a newspaper to check whether a story is true.

"But I don't know who you are or what you do, and I'm not going to answer any of your questions until I know."

A hint of moral outrage creeps into the tone of the person at the other end. Clearly, he or she thinks I am being completely unreasonable, like a Jehovah's Witness turning down a blood transfusion after an accident.

"They're for your own safety and security. I'm not allowed to disclose anything under the Data Protection Act until you've answered them."

Am I going mad, or is this a looking- glass world? Someone calls me out of the blue and demands that I answer his security questions before he will tell me why he called. "Look," I say. "Let's get this straight. It is you who want to speak to me, not I who want to speak to you. Therefore tell me what you want without further prevarication or evasion."

Now the caller feels frightened and even threatened. He clearly thinks I'm going to hit him, though how I transmit a blow down a telephone is a mystery. Or possibly he thinks I am going to stalk him.

"I'm going to have to terminate this call," he says, as if my own obduracy had deprived me of an inestimable advantage.

Even so, he calls me again a couple of days later.

This article first appeared in the 28 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, A dangerous time to be a Jew