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Things that keep me awake at night #1: The end of telephony

(#1 in an irregular series of minor apocalypses.)

A couple of days ago, I was on the phone (mobile) with an elderly relative, when the phone (land line) began to ring. I glance at it and see a number I don't recognize, Birmingham area code. Pick up. "Hello Mr Stross, I'm [XXX], calling from [mumbled company] about claiming your free—"

Now, I don't know about you, but cold-calling folks to sell them stuff is, in my view, rude. And cold-calling an ex-directory number that's in the Telephone Preference Service do-not-call list and redacted from the Electoral Register (the public version that's sold to marketers) is more than rude: it's illegal (and a clear flag for scammers). So my immediate response was a snarled "fuck off!" and a terminated call: possibly excessive, but I don't get to talk to the relative in question that often, and I don't appreciate some random jerk interrupting.

(I should have known better: cue three subsequent callbacks by $JERK, who wanted to swear at me. Well, at least I trolled him successfully ...)

What makes this call so exceptional is that there was a human being on the other end of it, and it was dialing from a UK phone line. Most phone spam these days—and despite the TPS database I get an increasing amount of it—comes from overseas, and about 50% of it is pre-recorded messages. (As I get legitimate international calls on my land line about once a year, on average, I'm considering blocking them completely; it'd solve 80% of the phone spam problem at source.) But this got me thinking.

My land line exists for one purpose: to provide ADSL internet access. The phone handset is, if anything, a living fossil—a relic of an era when things were very different. Today I barely use it. Hell, I barely use my iPhone for voice calls: it's a pocket-sized portable texting and data terminal. Voice calls are generally an annoying interruption (and getting one while I'm working in flow can kick me out of concentration for up to half an hour, badly disrupting my ability to work). Things were different 30 years ago: the telephone was a lifeline, a form of realtime social contact you could experience while isolated at home, about the only instant form of messaging most people had access to before the internet. Now, it's an intrusive annoyance, and not even terribly useful. (Just try revisiting the edited highlights of a conversation and responding to them an hour later!)

But even as the telephone has dwindled in significance in my life, telephony has gotten cheaper. Monstrously, impossibly, cheaper. A phone call requires bidirectional communication at roughly 2400 bits/second, a vanishingly tiny data rate in an age when my home has 2,000,000 bits/second of outbound bandwidth (and eight times that incoming). Voice over IP gateways are relatively cheap and easy to set up, and a £250 PC sitting on a desk can do the work of a £,250,000 branch exchange from 20 years ago.

Hence all those spammy pre-recorded messages from a PC sitting in a rack in Texas. Hence all those phone calls from Adam (in Bangalore) from Microsoft about the infection that is slowing down my PC. The biggest cost in those call centre scams is the bums in the seats: phone calls from India to the UK, which used to cost an hourly wage per minute as recently as the early 1980s, are now essentially free.

And it's going to get much, much worse, because it's a wee bit difficult to enforce local jurisdiction laws about cold-calling at five thousand miles' remove.

Consider that we now have reasonably reliable speech recognition for limited subsets of our language: if you want to recognize the words "yes", "no", "one", "two" ... "ten" (and other common digits), spoken over the phone in a variety of accents, the software to do this with 98% or better reliability is available right now, and cheap. The same bots we're used to seeing on twitter and IRC and other IM systems can in principle be speech-enabled, and come to our phones from all over the internet.

Consider that we have cheap connectivity almost everywhere on the planet—there are black spots (try phoning a supertanker crossing the Pacific and you'll rapidly discover the joys of satellite phones; try phoning Syria this week—in the middle of a civil war, the authorities having cut the lines—or North Korea), but these are essentially anomalies in a sea of bandwidth. Which means the telesales scammers are as free as the email spammers to migrate their servers to jurisdictions that give them effective immunity, or boiler-room call centre labour at £0.5/hour (for skilled, English-speaking staff).

There's no obvious way for this to end well: the inexorable downward pressure on the price of bandwidth is pricing voice calls down into spam marketing territory.

One obvious answer is whitelisting: you may configure your phone to only accept incoming calls from numbers in your address book. Or only accept calls from numbers that support Caller ID. But that's ... unsubtle. Caller ID can be spoofed. And what if your teen-age son is out late, dropped his mobile and his wallet down a storm drain, and needs to phone from a payphone or a friend's mobile to request a lift home? What if a relative is trying to call you from hospital after a car crash?

A better alternative is to let the Cloud manage the whitelisting for you. Let's imagine for a moment that Facebook is the great, benevolent, cuddly entity we'd all prefer it to be, with only our best interests at heart. FB has for some time now been pushing users to give it their phone numbers—all part of the great personal data shakedown. But consider: FB knows who your "friends" (actually, passing social contacts) are. It knows their phone numbers. And it knows, by a minor miracle of graph theory, who your friends' friends are—a wider pool—and what their phone numbers are. Being able to configure your phone to accept phone calls only from my Facebook friends— or friends-of-friends, or unblocked (available to everybody) may be the only sane way out of the telephone spam maze. And if a FoaF phones you to cold-sell you a conservatory you can report them for spamming on FB, maybe even get their account frozen (freezing them in turn out of the mobile phones of everyone who is only accepting calls from FoaFs).

I don't like this solution because it gives Facebook too damned much extra power; they are already trying to replace all email communications, and this gambit would hand them effective control over actual voice calls. Nor do I trust any of the other multinational data aggregators to do better: Google, Apple, Twitter, Klout, whoever. Turn the paradigm on its head: what would stop Facebook from allowing commercial account holders to pay for "sponsored calls", or bare-faced voice advertising via Facebook? And then turning around and offering to sell us premium accounts that don't receive advertising (yes, thank you Livejournal for pioneering that business model)?

I see no good outcome for this: and while voice telephony hasn't outlived its usefulness yet, but if we don't find a solution to the spam problem the end is in sight.

140 Comments

1:

I think you've put your finger on 2 of the big issues with the TPS:-
1) It only applies to calls from the UK; Mr Gupta from India is exempt.
2) Automated diallers can still sometimes slip through (at least if you're only ex-directory or the firm's TPS database is faulty or not up to date).

Similarly, blocking anonymous diallers is potentially problematic, because companies that might legitimately phone you (for instance if I called you (second person plural sense) from work) use ID blocking as part of their strategy for blocking spam callers.

Incidentally, the fact of having a landline does not mean that you have to have a handset connected to it, and not doing so will block spam. The hardest part (and it's not that hard; I've done it) is persuading legitimate callers that they have to call your mobile number.

2:

Possibly the solution lies in a confluence of public/private keys and voice-recognition. At the moment the only piece of information someone needs to call you is your phone number, which is to all intents public.

What if they also needed to know something private, like a pass phrase, in order to make your phone ring? Anyone calling without the pass phrase would get diverted to voicemail for screening later. (And the same voice-recognition software could then filter out the verbal spam for you).

3:

I don't know. The social solution seems to fail for similar reasons as the whitelist. If someone's calling from a hospital, or a phonebooth (assuming you still have those) or some random person's phone, social graph wouldn't help much. In my view, this is more tractable than email spam for a couple of reasons:

1) Email wasn't really built for security, at least until recently. Not so long ago you could send arbitrary mail froms and rcpt tos, even to different addresses completely unrelated to the SMTP servers in question. The phone system, on the other hand, was built from the ground up to be reasonably auditable given that there's billing involved.

2) Getting a phone number requires plugging to people who have big infrastructure. It requires contracts, names, addresses, etc. Getting an IP address (or access to one) is a lot more slippery: you can get one by connecting to unsecure wireless networks, and so on; and then there are zombie boxes. (Maybe if you can zombify phone users you could do similar things, but that's more Laundry-like.) So trying to get hold of spammers is a really difficult and fruitless venture, when many or most of their endpoints are subverted computers, but getting hold of the endpoint of a phone call isn't, quite, as hard.

3) The jurisdiction issue: the problem with spam is that, with the best will and the most responsive courts in the world, if people are spamming from some innocent person's IP that's more or less the end of the story. Sure, occasionally through very high-tech investigative work the real origin can be found, but this is pretty non-trivial and beyond the reach of most people. So states pretend to fight spam, but in reality are quite helpless. States, however, have a great deal more control over telcos, and regulatory instruments to make them comply. So what happens if a state doesn't play nice and we get calls from it? Well, we could blacklist that state on our phones, in that case. (This ends up becoming a question about VoIP providers and the like, since it's so simple to use that to call from a seemingly local number, but telcos could enforce a namespace separation for local numbers and VoIP, disconnect VoIP providers that are sources of spam, etc.)

4:

We have two lines. One is the line the spammers and scammers come in on, the other is the one that real calls come in on.

The first is numerically earlier, the second the one we hand out.

I have before now sympathetically told a caller how awful, how soul destroying, it must be having to ring people up to lie to them. He was not happy at all, but funnily enough no scammers tried calling at all for weeks after that.

(It's odd how long they keep on struggling to persuade me they're a good person to do business with when I've already pointed out that their very contact call itself is illegal: if the only thing I've seen them doing is lying, I'm really going to trust them, yes?)

5:

Would knock codes help here? The default behaviour for non-whitelisted callers is block, but your teenage dependents could know that they need to let it ring twice, then disconnect and call back. Anyone else who is not on the list will have to find another legitimate way to contact you.

I find voice telephony inherently rude. There is an assumption that a unilateral decision by someone else to talk to you should be immediately agreed-to. The first thing I say when I call people is "Is this a good time to talk?"

6:

I would imagine the problem will get solved from two different directions.

The phone will become more of a general "this is me" device so will need better authentication, biometrics, etc. to get the full use out of. So there will be more ways to authenticate people as "really" being the person you want to talk to.

They'll be more alternate "urgent" ways of getting in touch. There's a group of friends and colleagues that are already much more likely to respond to a private twitter DM quickly than a phone call.

Due to a recent move I'm currently living without a dedicated land line. I'm thinking about staying that way.

7:

Telcos (particularly in Europe) are doing an awful job of integrating their services into our digital lives. Since my 'land line' number is really just a logical address in a cloud based service that's ultimately mapped to some copper running into my house I should be able to have integration into contacts, notifications/alerts, routing and rules and voice->text - all of those other services I consume routinely from the cloud. This hasn't happened (yet) because those telcos are terrified of disruption to their business model.

In every circumstance beside the 'land line' I can wash calls through a combination of SIP Sorcery and Google Voice so that my robot takes care of everything and I only talk to the people I want (when I want to).

8:

The solution is to throw technology at it. I predict:

For non-white-listed numbers, virtual Operators with:
-Speech recognition and spam filters based on your previous calls and emails.
-Voice pattern recognition

So, if somebody rings me up about fencing and speaks to the virtual operator, it'll put them through because many of my calls and emails will use similar key words. If my son calls from a borrowed phone, "Hi Dad. I'm in a field ..." (this happened to a friend of mine) it'll recognize his voice and put him through. And so on.

9:

paws4thot: The various regulations and directives underlying the TPS apply to calls made to UK numbers. The last version I worked with made no reference to the source of a call. The problem is in the enforcement. It's worth getting details if they claim to be working on behalf of a UK firm as that can lead to action being taken.

Almost all the spam calls I've had recently seem to use auto-diallers that don't hand over to a drone until the line is answered. If I don't get an immediate response I hang up.

10:

There's a couple of solutions to the "legitimate phone calls from odd numbers" problem. There's the complicated - port knocking, voice recognition - and the simple: whitelisting all payphones, or whitelisting the operator and telling $TEENAGER to reverse the charges.

11:

1) Email wasn't really built for security, ... The phone system, on the other hand, was built from the ground up to be reasonably auditable given that there's billing involved.

In the US, due to the way DID, number portability and such are implemented you can SPOOF the origin number. Which is why it is so frigging hard to track down the more technically sophisticated phone spammers. The originating number presented to the phone network isn't always a real number.

... but getting hold of the endpoint of a phone call isn't, quite, as hard.

See above. Maybe things are better in other countries.

12:

Requiring a phone line to get DSL internet in the US is a dwindling situation. More and more you can get either "naked DSL" without a phone number or whatever the incombent carrier has as their "new and improved" option. U-Verse for AT&T and FIOS for Verizon. Neither of which require a phone connection for internet service. And it really becomes a moot point if you get your internet via the cable company or a radio wireless service.

I don't know the current numbers for the US but I think that over 10% of households don't have a land line of any kind. Maybe over 20%. But most of those do have internet. Typically the local cable option.

13:

Are people in the EU holding onto their land lines more than in the US due to the way cell phones billing works?

With the US system where you pay at each end of the call but the costs are headed to near 0 in practical terms and the cost to the caller is the same no matter who places the call there's no real reluctance to call a cell phone.

But in the EU where there's the "caller pays" when calling a cell phone as the most common option (as I understand things) I'm guessing there's a reluctance to call a cell phone built into the concept.

14:

and the simple: whitelisting all payphones, or whitelisting the operator and telling $TEENAGER to reverse the charges.

Payphones are vanishing in the US. Except for private ones which takes them out of the white listing of all payphones options. And with most people carrying cell phones even private pay phones are a vanishing device.

Also in the US, have you tried to get an operator? Last time I tried 5 or 10 years ago it was hard. The position has mostly been eliminated.

Your solutions seem about 10 years out of date.

15:

just have a premium-rate number. or audio-captcha. both of these of course, unsubtle.

16:

Nope. Caller pays -- receiver pays nothing -- for cellphones, but we get so many minutes included that the price is tending towards zero; my impression is that mobile phone service is significantly cheaper in the UK than in the USA. Oh, and we don't pay to receive SMS messages, either.

17:

Doesn't the Facebook solution become more trustable if it's some kind of federated, decentralized system? You can ask for all your friends's numbers directly, and maybe there is a provision in the social network protocol to ask for a hash of friends-of-friends's numbers.

I think a publicly maintained whitelist (of hospital, police, payphone numbers) + social network based whitelist + last resort intelligent authentication systems proposed by other commenters (pre-agreed codes, voice or pattern recognition) would work pretty well.

18:

I suspect it's a sign of the times that my voicemail message is "Send me email"...

19:

Yep. My current O2 tariff includes unlimited any-network calls and unlimited SMS. It's not as though my previous Vodafone plan (a few hundred messages, a few hour of calls per month) was at all limiting, it's just that this plan was cheaper overall. When the cheapest plan I can find has gone to unlimited call time and unlimited texts, then the marginal cost has effectively gone to zero.

The reason I went for this particular plan is that it was cheaper than my previous Vodafone plan, but still had a monthly GB of data, and did reasonably sane things for European travel. If I wasn't worrying about foreign travel, I'd have gone for a 3 plan that was a tad over a tenner a month.

Oh, David L, calls to landlines also 'cost'. In the UK at least, I doubt there's any real consideration any more as to whether the target is a landline or a mobile phone - calls to both are so cheap as to be silly, at least for those of us who remember just how expensive they used to be.

20:

Caller pays -- receiver pays nothing -- for cellphones, but we get so many minutes included that the price is tending towards zero; my impression is that mobile phone service is significantly cheaper in the UK than in the USA.

Yes. Caller pays to a cell phone. In the US a call costs the same no matter what type of number you are calling unless it's toll free. But that only applies to land lines calling 800 still area codes. And cell phones pay for those minutes in the US.

My point/question is that is there a reluctance in the EU to call a cell phone due to the caller pays setup?

As to cheaper. Yes, no, maybe, sort of, not? I pay $30 a month for unlimited texting. (Maybe $0 if I call up this week and fuss about it.) And with two college kids on my plan that can at times mean over 8,000 texts in a month.

And both Verizon and AT&T and wanting (strongly making it the only path) to switch people over to metered data with unlimited voice and text.

21:

One solution that ought to be fairly easy is a local whitelist and a passcode, perhaps with a blacklist too. If your number is on the whitelist it goes through and rings. Anyone in your contacts list for example. Anyone else, a la my bank, gets challenged for 3 characters from a pass-phrase - 3 tries and you're out (and flagged for blacklisting, to be dealt with at a later time). Ideally it doesn't even ring but is automatically sent to a voice message device if not blacklisted.

$accomodationSharerOrRelative after phone destroying/removing $disaster can ring home on whatever device and enter the characters to get through easily enough.

Spammer has to get lucky to even get the phone to ring and would presumably get blacklisted rapidly. If they do get through once and share to another number, eventually you have to change your passphrase. Whether that's after 1 success, 100, when they're ringing more than once a day or whatever is up to you.

In the UK, with community policing initiatives, the police asking you to add their station number to your contacts so they can contact you in an emergency is not that likely to offend most people I imagine. I know I'd be happy to do it and I have a pretty low opinion of the police, although I'm not exactly a habitual criminal with a long series of runs-in. Yes, spoofing the number is possible of course, but clearly criminal and the police ought to be both able to make the effort to hunt down the spoofers and change their number.

Telcos don't change their business plan. Someone starts making a box to do this for you, that bluetooth/wifi/USB (depending on how worried about it being hacked you are) connects to your computer and plugs in to your phone to do the clever stuff and away you go - an interface on the computer to listen to messages, manage contacts etc. and import contacts easily for that matter.

22:

well the main thing to know there is there is not "the EU" in terms of mobile/landline phone culture. Very different from country to country as I found out when moving from Austria (cell phone costs are essentially zero, market penetration greater than 100%, a lot of people have no landline phone-number) to Germany (quite a bit non-zero for reasons of stupidity a few years back). In Germany, landlines are apparently still quite important. Although my "landline" phone is provided by my cable-TV provider via SIP.

23:

Caller pays is, for all intents and practices, going away, at least in France. You can get unlimited voice, unlimited sms, and effectively unlimited data[1] for E20/month. And no additional charge for calling mobiles. So as long as you stay in France people have stopped caring whether you're landline or mobile.

OG.

[1] The operator is allowed to slow you down after 3Go in a month. I've never reached that level.

24:

Caller pays is, for all intents and practices, going away, at least in France. You can get unlimited voice, unlimited sms, and effectively unlimited data[1] for E20/month. And no additional charge for calling mobiles. So as long as you stay in France people have stopped caring whether you're landline or mobile.

OG.

[1] The operator is allowed to slow you down after 3Go in a month. I've never reached that level.

25:

$30 a month for unlimited texting is iniquitous.

I'm lazy. I don't shop around for new tariffs often, so I'm probably paying through the nose. But what I'm on currently, with O2, is a rolling monthly contract (i.e. I can cancel at 1 month's notice). It gets me 300 minutes of calls, unlimited SMS messages, unlimited data (they'll probably yell at me if I go over 1Gb/month, though), tethering for an extra £2.04/day when I use it, cheap data in Europe for an extra £2/day when I use it (up to 25Mb; otherwise international roaming data rates apply), and free use of BT Openzone and O2 wifi hotspots.

This lot costs me £20.42 per month, or around US $30, which is what you're paying for the text messaging alone.

Again, my experience of buying pre-paid data SIMs for my mifi in the USA is that if you can find them at all the cost of data is about double the UK rate.

(Note: I buy my own handsets from the manufacturer, unlocked, because I travel overseas often enough that I want to be able to plug a foreign SIM in rather than paying international roaming costs. The tariff above is aimed at retaining out-of-contract iPhone customers. If I was a "normal" customer who wanted a subsidized handset from the carrier every 18-24 months -- say, an iPhone 5 -- I'd need to pay a part of the price and the hike in the bill would cover the rest of the retail/unlocked price of the handset over 2 years.)

26:

I had a minor shunt in my car a couple of years ago. The other driver was at fault and admitted. Since then I've been fielding calls from claims management firms wanting me to put in a claim for personal injury. (It seems that the insurance companies don't reckon it's worth investigating a claim below 5k. Easy money if I was prepared to enter into the fraud.) The most annoying (And I'm sure this is a sign of immminent geezerdom) was the Mancunian Yoof who called opened up with, "All right? Can I speak to Anthony?" (No you fucking well can't speak to Mr. Cunningham.) Imagine being cold-called by Terry Christian and you're there.

I'm also called once a month or so by a marketing firm wanting to know if they can speak to Mr. Milner. I can only assume that they're working off a fifteen-year-old copy of the phone book which is when the number was last registered in that name. Still it makes them easy to spot.

I find that just letting all calls go to voicemail sorts out the people who actually have a good reason to call from the phone pests. Way back when it was the easist thing to do if you owned an answering machine.

27:

You're the big-shot futurist progonosticator — why not flip the question around?

You've got insanely cheap phone calls, free and open software to act as an exchange, and cheap-to-free software to replace a human on either end. Software/hardware solutions to send low-bandwidth data over this audio channel are long established.

So, what would you use this resource for, if you had the time an inclination — and were not a spammer/political operative/call center operator? Assume you can synthesize voices, do low-bandwidth comms, even video of a sorts.

It seems to me spammers are merely a distraction, and the potential for creative use of this system is ripe for anybody with the creativity to use it.

28:

Reverse the original purpose of the phone directory to become a hard reference record of those who want to make calls and who are willing to be identified. It doesn't need to be public.

29:

paws4thot @ 1 & Charlie
Yes.
I have recemt;y been forced into verbal abuse of these menaces, whhich, if spoken face-to-face might get me investigated for "hate speech".
It isn't of course, but, like Charlie, we are on TPS, so they must (usually) be calling from outside the EU, & there is no legal sanction against them, at all, that I am aware of.
So you are left with insulting them so grossly, that you hope they'll go away & not bother again ...
Not a good outcome.

Bellinghman @ 4
Thanks - I'll try to remember that one, next time, before the red mist descends.

@ 7
Not so.
I'm getting SPAM messages over my mobile - have been for over a year now. Usually either PPS or insurance scams, but still.
They have automated bots that just dial all the numbers they can find, in sucession, & post the text msg.
Grrrr ....


@ 18
OK IF your phone is working properly.
I've just given in, & upgraded to a BlackBerry ...
Problems ... it works as a phone but ...
[ RANT ON: the services don't. I can't get emial, the "service" keeps rejecting my own home email address, I had my account drained, because the shop mis-sold me stuff by omission ( got £30 back in the end ) I can't get the web or the mapping function - even the BlackBerry self-help details won't load, and my so-called "provider" - was called "Orange", now "EE", has 'phone-only voice contact, which is utterly useless if you want detailed text altered, and, would you believe it a mobile phone service "provider" that does NOT HAVE ANY e-mail contact address?
ARRGH! / RANT OFF ]

30:

I can see whitelisting remaining a popular technique, though. Google Talk (which despite the name is an XMPP service; go figure) silently drops at least inter-domain messages from people not in your contacts list.

The idea seems to be that if you want to talk to someone, you've already communicated with them out-of-band to exchange addresses, and thus recognise who's trying to add you.

Re facebook being evil, I wonder if a) the relevant information here is exposed to third-party applications and b) if Facebook are likely to lie about it for purposes of inserting advertisers in the list.

I count myself among the people who aren't particularly fond of telephony in general, spam or no spam. Text based media are so much less annoying most of the time, the remainder being the rare cases, such as games, where you want your hands free.

31:

Scary thing was realising - after a visit to the London offices of a client - that they use a number of regional phone numbers to phone mobiles, in order to make people thing they're receiving a local call.

The numbers are all owned by the business in question, so traceable, but shows that the area code is irrelevant / misleading.

And as per comments above, there are too many places that use Blocked for important calls (i.e. both of local GP and hospital, for some reason, show up as Blocked when they call on the mobile. Thankfully, we don't get cold calls on the mobile yet, so I know that it is actually something important). Otherwise, I would simply block anonymous calls.

There are (expensive) devices you can put on your line to exclude unwanted calls.

The other big problem - number recycling. Move house in any major urban area and you'll get a recycled number. And who is the most likely kind of customer to have their number recycled????

32:

I'd guess that telephone spam is much less of a problem in countries where few other people speak the language (Iceland, Finland)

One brute force solution is to get a phone number there and route that to your landline.

All the calls you receive need to be international calls, but these are cheap enough. Might be a while until telemarketers (or their software) speak finnish.

33:

> The hardest part (and it's not that hard; I've done it) is persuading legitimate callers that they have to call your mobile number.

This is changing - I suspect it's to do with the subset of Millennials who actually have money and who went to uni with a mobile and never got back into the hang of having a land-line as an adult.

34:

Aah. Nostalgia. I too use the phone line only for ADSL (doesn't everybody?) but attached to the line for the sake of having a landline is a cherry red Western Electric rotary phone. There is a reassuring weight to the thing and a very very reassuring embossed text claiming that the phone is 'BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY, NOT FOR SALE'.

I think there isn't really an applicable solution to this problem. Like you said, a white-listed person might end up having to call you from a non-white-listed number. Unless there was a service the network provider could provide where a person could, no matter what device they were using, could make the call from his/her own number. You dial a number provided by the network, you input a numeric password and the call appears to come from that phone. Maybe there really is a service like this. Not really up to date on my tech.

35:

This already exists to a limited extent. I used to work in a call-centre (not cold-calling, I hasten to add, but arranging time and date of delivery for items already purchased) and for whatever reason I was instructed that all outgoing calls must be made as a withheld number. There was one customer who I called half a dozen times and got nothing but a recorded message saying "Please enter your security code". Eventually I had a brainwave and tried dialling the number without putting 141 in front of it -breaking company policy, but then I had to do that several times a day to provide anything vaguely reminiscent of customer service- and got through.

I've not run across this feature on a phone before or since, but it seems like it'd be easily adapted to block any number not on your whitelist rather than just withheld ones.

36:

There is a product available in the UK which I've found very useful in the US as well. It's called TrueCall (www.truecall.co.uk). It provides both whitelist and blacklist and more. The way I have mine configured now is that callers on the whitelist get through immediately. Callers not on the whitelist are first prompted to enter a specific number, then asked to identify themselves. Only then does my phone ring. When the phone does ring I hear the identification of the caller and can then press "1" to accept the call, "*" to accept the call and add the caller to the whitelist ("Star list"), "#" to refuse the call, play a message asking the caller not to call back and add the caller to the blacklist ("Zap list"), or do nothing and let the call go to the answering machine. The device offers a lot more flexibility than that, including the ability to vary handling based on the time of day. This handles the emergency calls from an unknown number quite handily. You can have a total of a thousand numbers on the white and blacklists combined. I think I may have used about twenty of those.

I just wish the TELCOs would provide this kind of call handling directly.

37:

Our landline mostly gets spam calls these days (in Western Australia). Since I'm the one who's home most of the time, I tend to take the calls, and explain nicely to the person on the other end of the line that either:

a) No, Himself isn't available (they're inevitably calling while he's at work). May I take a message?

AND/OR

b) No, I'm not Mrs $HIMSELF'S_SURNAME. She doesn't live here (because Mrs $HIMSELF'S_SURNAME is my mother-in-law, and we don't share premises).

AND/OR

c) We live in a rental property, and therefore aren't able to give approval for the purchase of solar panels/roller shutters/whatever it is; this is the name of the real estate agent who handles the property, feel free to call them if you really want to try and make a sale.

AND/OR

d) No, we don't buy stuff that's sold over the phone. So sorry for wasting your time! Byeeee! [hangs up].

I also log the time, the date and the company they say they're representing. I have plans to post the list on my blog, just so there's a public record of "these are companies who attempt to solicit business by cold canvassing via phone. You may wish to avoid them in future".

If we eventually manage to get our finances in order, I have plans to get an answering machine, so that those callers who wish to actually speak to either Myself or Himself can leave a message and we'll get back to them. Since the main people who call us that we actually want to speak to are Himself's parents, it's probably going to be a very small list.

38:

Oh yes, number recycling.

We have, next to each phone in the house (excepting the handset on the other line), the current number for the local pet crematorium. Even now, 10 years+ after we were issued the number and probably at least 12 after the Cambridge Pet Crematorium surrendered their previous number, we get an occasional call from someone who has lost their beloved animal companion and who wants to see them off properly.

If we'd got the previous number of a Pizza place, it'd have stopped a long time back, but this is one of those numbers you don't expect to change and that you squirrel away in an address book for future reference.

39:

I admire your self-control, when they call my landline phone to sell crap I say worse than "fuck off!"

After so many years of online life I have become so used to sending/receiving email/IM asking if and when to call, that I find not doing so pushy.

But I must admit that spam calls give me a perfect opportunity for some stress-reducing rudeness. After shouting bad words at unknown spammers, I feel sort of better. Perhaps phone spammers have a useful social role after all.

40:

#9 Vulch - Did you miss the bit where I specifically located the call centre in India, and hence outside not just the UK's, but the EU's, jurisdiction? Actually international criminal laws are a rare beast indeed.

41:

If people want to contact me they can do so with 100% success via my gmail account (except spammers that google removes). If you want to talk with me I'm on Skype. If you want to use a landline I have an answerphone and I'll (maybe) get back to you. I have a mobile, but it's only for emergencies and switched on once a week.

42:

I find that the best way to deal with sales calls is to tell them "Oh, that sounds really interesting, could you just hang on a minute, I'll be with you right away..." and then put the phone on the desk, leaving them to hang up whenever they get tired of waiting. Most of them never call back (the maximum I had was one guy who needed three calls to realise what I was doing).

It has the advantage of being the only method that actually costs the spammers money (i.e. time). Won't really help the problem of the call kicking you out of your concentration, but it's still less distracting than cursing them off the phone.

43:

I used to have no land-line phone, but then I moved to where I live now; nice area, but on the wrong side of a hill for mobile reception. It hilariously depends on the weather whether the mobile will get enough signal to even ring, mostly forget actually communicating.

This incidentally also makes "mobile TAN" schemes unusable, which is starting to be a liability.

44:

I think Vulch's point was that you go after the UK firm on whose behalf the call is supposedly being made.

Of course not all calls will be of that type — your Microsoft virus problem type of call is pure social engineering trying to screw you and pwn your PC. But the ones wanting you as a customer, they're a different matter, they quite possibly do have some UK presence. They'll try to deny it of course, but you can raise a stink and tarnish their reputation with TPS. Some do get shut down.

In the case of foreign call centres spamming the UK, many have contracts to provide cheap access into the UK phone system. Enough complaints, and those contracts can end up getting cancelled.

Yeah, it's whackamole, and likely to get worse.

45:

In the US, there is a similar "Do Not Call" list, which can be ignored by non-profits, and by for-profits with whom you have a prior relationship.

The most evil of those who ignore this is the prerecorded "Rachel from Cardmember Services" which was supposedly shut down last month, although I have continued to receive messages about reducing my interest rates (although I have to admit it's gone from daily to weekly).

If you connect to an operator and ask how they got your number, they may (a) hang up, (b) insult you... but once I got them to claim that they were my card processor -- a fact I've since disproved by calling every single one of my credit card companies.

In my mind, "Rachel" should be public enemy #1.

46:

I suspect a multi-tiered approach is the way forwards.

When someone calls either with caller-id turned off, or from a number the machine doesn't have whitelisted, they will first be asked to press the number key corresponding to a simple arithmetic operation to proceed, thus: "Greetings, this is a robot. Please press the key which corresponds to two plus two now:"

Repeat a couple of times, and if no correct response is received, tell the caller "You are obviously either a robot or an idiot, goodbye".

After that basic idiot-filter, you either ring the phone, forward to voicemail or ring then voicemail. Note: if you're going to drop the caller straight to voicemail because the line owner is out, be sure to give them a series of phoney rings as if you are really ringing the internal phone, so as not to give any malicious attacker a clue as to whether you're in or not.

47:

Very interesting, never thought about this before. My only criticism, besides considering an increase in annoying things a minor apocalypse, is in the narrowness of your whitelist proposal. I too would rather Facebook not be my communications gatekeeper, but I don't use it as one now and don't expect I'll ever see a need to. A decentralized / "open" whitelist would probably be better, even if more work would have to be done to ensure no-one was putting in false info to make spammers look safe. This basic approach seems to work just fine for Web of Trust, which I wouldn't be too surprised to see facebook use for outgoing links at some point in the future rather than developing their own in house solution.

Ultimately I think a blacklist with very dedicated maintainers would be better. If curmudgeonly Scottish SF authors can get this passionate about blocking spammers, surely some focused ultra-nerd will make it his or her personal mission to keep a blacklist updated and protected from subversion attempts. As tangential evidence, I'd point to the Number Guru iphone app, which seems to almost always have at least a few, usually many, reports for every spam number that calls me. If that were integrated into the screen the comes up when you receive a call (Eg "98% of users reported this was spam") it'd be fairly easy to screen out spammers. Apocalypse averted

48:

I seem to recall that when phones first started to become widespread, many rich people didn't want one because it could intrude directly into the house. Unlike a runner or a visitor who had to talk to the butler first. (I'll just go and see if Madam is in. Madam, are you in? No? Ok then. I'm dreadfully sorry, but Madam isn't in.)

Personally I prefer to have a land line rather than a mobile. It means that people don't expect me to be always available. (Oh, no answer, he must be out.) It has also meant in the past that I would spend less money. Anyway, I keep moving (around the world no less), and my numbers keep changing, and, well. Anyway, I just turn my mobile off if I don't want to be disturbed. If you want to contact me, use email. Oh, you don't know my email? Whatever.

Anyway, I had a point, but I sort of lost it.

Oooh, another point. Modems. With all these free minutes, why not use your phone as a modem to connect to the Internet? (No you don't need to answer that question. I know the answer.)

49:

A little more than 20 years ago, Focus On The Family moved their HQ to town, and promptly gave out our phone number, via commercials on christian radio stations, across the US. Being Jewish, we were particuarly not pleased. We got frequent calls, almost at all hours, from little old ladies asking how they could get their free cookbook. After a couple months of this, and trying not to tell off the nice christian ladies, Focus finally responded and changed the commercial, but they never did send the damn cookbook they promised.

Then there was the time I called a friend's number, his wife answered at the same moment a mechanic at a garage did. The garage had just gotten a new number, guess whose.

50:

Just try the Canadian solution:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2009/08/11/canada-cellphone-rates-expensive-oecd.html

Let a few huge semi-monopoly companies control everything so that all telecom prices are incredibly high. That way there will be no room for cheap marketers and other small fry, fleas. No proliferation of those cheap companies. So that way they are easier to control.

But this is inherent to the structure of Canadian society and its economy so I'm not sure if it can be "copied" elsewhere. In other countries people would be out in the streets with their hunting rifles if they were suddenly faced with the absurdly high prices we pay for telecom.

Incidentally, the reason behind our absurdly high telecom prices is basically the same reason why you're getting Mark Carney as governor of the Bank of England after his stint as governor of the Bank of Canada. If I read most news sources correctly it's because of his supposed talent in keeping the Canadian economy stable during the 2008 crisis and after. In fact, the reason he was so "successful" was due to tight financial controls the Canadian government (much like the Swedish government) legislated in the 90s and to the fact that nearly all banking in Canada is done through a few semi-monopoly corporations. The governor of the Bank of Canada can get all, and I mean all of Canada's bank chiefs together in a small room and talk things over pretty fast.

51:

Regarding "knock codes": at least in the US, the existing land line infrastructure has legacy technology to mess with these: The ring tone that is played for the caller is out of phase with the actual rings heard by the receiver, by a random amount that changes from call to call. So, if the caller hangs up after hearing one ring, the receiver might have heard zero, one, or two. (And vice versa: if the receiver picks up very quickly, the caller might have heard no rings at all.)

The reason they did this is that "knock codes" were in use before, in ancient days, (ring once means this, ring twice means that, ring longer and I'll pick up) as a money saving measure, as no one was billed if the receiver didn't pick up. Ye olde Ma Bell saw them as billing fraud; Ma wanted her cut.

(I'm not sure the same is true worldwide; I've heard tell of similar tricks being used in Africa, for the same reason. In which case, I'd expect the African telecoms to implement similar measures in due course.)

52:

Regarding Facebook as gatekeeper: Google is also eagerly auditioning for the role, not just for phones, but for a whole lot of other data streams. (viz. "Google Now", a service on your Android device which alerts you to whatever Google thinks you might be interested in at the moment: scores for your favorite sports team, traffic conditions along your usual commute, or whatever.)

Google's current management also seems less prone to abuse the position than Facebook's --- but that can change. Google's a bit less changeable than other large companies due to the effective control retained by the founders. But whether that lasts, say, fifteen years is a bit of a risk... if nothing else, Larry and Sergei are both subject to health issues.

53:

This is why I still have a landline, hooked up to an old answering machine. When the phone rings, I can listen to find out who the caller is. My friends know to start talking, because I will probably pick up if I'm home. Both my phones are old Western Electric *dial* phones, because that's what's programmed in my old brain, and the sound quality is much better. I have a push button phone I can hook up for calls that needs numbers entered.

I also have a cell phone that I use for long distance, because it's cheaper, and for emergencies when I am away from home. Another reason I keep a landline is that 911 calls (the emergency number in the US) don't always work from a cell phone. My cell phone is old enough I don't think it has GPS, and even the newer ones can't always direct emergency calls correctly all the time.

54:

I've heard of what you call "knock codes" being used on UK mobile networks. Desynchronising rings to that extent might cause problems here, because automated voicemail can pick up after as few as 6 rings, so at the one extreme you could cause lots of missed voice to voice calls.

55:

Just flip this around.

Contract with call centers in India - verify they're not the spammer first, but somewhere cheap - as actual live person answering services. Route your number through them.

One-off, insanely expensive. As a bulk service...?

Presumably set it up so you can whitelist known people past the call center operator, but for snyone else, convince my operator you're real and not a scammer...

56:

Greylisting, perhaps?

That's sort of like whitelisting, as whitelisted numbers get through immediately, but unrecognized numbers go directly to an answering machine (which you can configure to be audible or silent).

A more sophisticated version would have pass codes, but I haven't seen anything like that on the market. And greylisting only on e-mail. (The e-mail greylist that I've heard of just holds the connection for a long time before acknowledging if it doesn't recognize the sender, but I can imagine one that operates via an exchange of patterned messages. "Why did the old woman have Dutch Elm disease?" "Because blue if prettier than orangutangs." If voice recognition gets cheap enough, you could do the same thing over the phone, but something similar could be done even with only tone recognition.

57:

I've always hated phones - I have phone-phobia. So I don't mind phones getting less important.

Contrary to what would be logical, the dutch KPN (the telephony part of the former PTT) is *increasing* their phone rates, and has been doing so for a while. I don't understand that...

58:

Just use Google Voice: it works like whitelisting except it makes unknown callers say their names, neatly getting around the "cellphone in toilet" problem. I find that most spammers just hang up when faced with screening.

There's a lot of room for improvement but I think it solves the fundamental problem.

59:

I didn't miss that point, in fact it's what I addressed. Just because the origin of the call is outside the local jurisdiction doesn't exempt the caller from the requirements of the regulations. They are still committing an offence under English (and quite probably Scots and EU as well, that wasn't something I needed to get involved in when I had to monitor compliance) law. Enforcement may not be possible but, if you're bored, refuse to talk to call centre drones unless they give you their passport details and mention that they may be subject to arrest if they ever visit Europe.

And as Bellinghman said, if the spammer is claiming to represent a UK company then that's another offence and is much easier to deal with

60:

I used to have a land line for internet service. Since I wasn't wanting to receive any phone calls at it and nobody I knew knew the number I just turned the ringer off. I think I only used it for phone interviews when looking for a job, because of the better voice quality.

Today I'm using google voice on an android phone. I have it set up to let calls from contacts straight through, and to challenge others to provide a name then ask me if I want to take the call. I don't think the robocallers are smart enough to deal with that, so they end up sending dead air if anything. If I don't, or I miss a call, or send someone to mail because I am busy they can leave a message, which google attempts to transcribe into text. Usually that works well enough to find out what the call was about. I would probably set it up to send everyone to voicemail automatically, but my grandmother has caller id blocking turned on so it would reject her calls.

Unfortunately these services require deep integration into the phone call functionality to work well, which Apple doesn't allow.

61:

When I did recently get spam calls (the google voice setup is pretty new) I would just instantly hang up. No point getting mad about it or trying to abuse some poor call center worker bee. Equally no point trying to be polite to them, they are being paid. Plus I have a vague fear that some of the robots might be smart enough to realize that cursing indicates they did in fact reach a human at that number.

62:

But you still don't have LLU local loop unbundeling where you can get phone service from one provider and DSL from another.

The big mistake was that the USA's insane way of doing regulation by lawyers left the local monopoly intact.

63:

Oh, another tip I stumbled across. Get a phone number which is mapped to a less intensely marketed area.

My Seattle number gets a lot less phone spam than my wife's San Francisco number. I suspect that a number from the small town of George in Washington state would get less than the Seattle number.

64:

Well that called party pays is one of the resons that the US laged europe in mobile - and also going all NIVH and not going with GSM also hurt.

Has the USA manged to get SMS roaming working yet? I worked on a SMS syetrm a while back and it was easy to build a system that woudl work for 100% or Uk the uSA forget it.

65:

10 years+ after we were issued the number and probably at least 12 after the Cambridge Pet Crematorium surrendered their previous number, we get an occasional call from someone

A bit over 20 years ago we got a new number when we moved and it used to belong to a lawyer. About once a month we got a call from them and gave them the standard spiel. Then there was that one message on the answering machine. "This is Bob. I'm in jail. Please make arrangements for bail." No call back number or last name. Oh, well.

We moved again in a year and our new number belonged to a solar water heater company from the 70s. Which was long out of business. We had to tell they 1/2 dozen or so callers for that that we really couldn't help them with any repairs.

66:

And another note. With number portability in the US this is mostly a non issue now. But you also have no idea where calls might be from. Only where the number was first assigned.

67:

I am not sure that the TPS can be trusted.

I first signed up with them in 2005, when we moved to the current phone number and address. Back then, I did it with a telephone call.

It seems that they lost my telephone number at some point, because when I had occasion to complain about a UK company, it seems the TPS didn't have a record of me. Though according to their website, my phone number was already registered with them, and then not.

It's not a system that is very good, when you get an unexpected response, at telling you the number you asked about: it's not helpful if there was a typing error.

It's not a system that gives you much chance to distinguish a typing error from a loss of data.

The company that dialed me claimed that I had to regularly update my TPS registration, which the TPS website says is not so.

I get occasional calls intended for the previous occupier of this place. That's 8-year-old data.

Oh, and I had the crooks calling me today.

68:

I must admit that I frequently conveniently forget to turn on the ringer on the landline phone... Like OGH, my home network connection has a legacy analog system lumped in with it for no good reason. (Also, huge rant about telcos being capable of providing a phone connection to my new place on the day I moved in, but having to wait a whole month to get the FTTC broadband. Priorities completely inverted there -- really, what century are they living in?.)

Failing my normal route of just completely ignoring the landline phone -- I don't have many people that would ever need to get in touch with me, and all of those know the acceptable alternatives) -- I quite fancy the idea of implementing one of those really annoying 'Press 1 if you have lost the will to live, 2 if experiencing murderous rage, 3 otherwise' automated menu things that so many companies somehow think are an acceptable way to treat their customers. Except this would be a maze of twisty little choices, all alike. An endless maze, or at least a loopy one.

69:

Let the social networks manage the whitelist

Let people not on the whitelist call but charge them 25 cents to bypass.

70:

Has the USA manged to get SMS roaming working yet? I worked on a SMS syetrm a while back and it was easy to build a system that woudl work for 100% or Uk the uSA forget it.

Not sure what you mean here? I've never had a case where SMS texting wasn't an option. Unless I has no service on the phone.

My wife works as a business analyst for baggage for a major airline. It's incredibly complex (legally) to set up text alerts for your baggage status when you have a lot bag. Each country has different rules about what you have to do before you can send them a text. Which makes it hard to say "we'll just text you when your bag is located, out for delivery, whatever". With some you can just do it. With others they have to request it. With others yet again you can ask and they say do it. With some the lawyers have decided you can't text them unless they signed a waiver at a counter somewhere.

71:

Contrary to what would be logical, the dutch KPN (the telephony part of the former PTT) is *increasing* their phone rates, and has been doing so for a while. I don't understand that...

It's a wicked trend among telcos: as the net-savvy folks move to Voice-over-IP or IM and away from voice calls, they can up call charges and soak the elderly and non-technologically-clueful. Shameful rent-seeking behaviour.

72:

Google Voice is not available outside the USA, IIRC.

73:

$30 a month for unlimited texting is iniquitous.

For my family it's really $7.5/person/mo. A single person under the old AT&T (and likely Verizon) plans got unlimited for $10/mo.

But as I said, both of these US carriers are switching to meter the data and give unlimited voice and text. Going back years ago my family would use 1500 or more PAID minutes a month. Now with mobile to mobile free, plus text, plus iMessage, we are down to under 400.

74:

Voice calls are generally an annoying interruption (and getting one while I'm working in flow can kick me out of concentration for up to half an hour, badly disrupting my ability to work).

I've made my cell phone my primary phone. But I've done my one version of white listing. Default ring is vibrate only. People I know get a custom sound. The important people in my life get the old time phone bell ring tone.

The point is if my phone just vibrates I can ignore it for a while in 99.99% of the cases. And for the other 0.01%, well that's better than before call waiting, voice mail, and cell phones.

75:

"Hence all those spammy pre-recorded messages from a PC sitting in a rack in Texas."

It may interest you to know that robodialers are illegal here in Texas. But even though they're illegal both for the recipient and the initiator, the calls still happen.

I got rid of our landline a year or so ago, exactly because phone spam meant that it had negative value.


mathew
[BTW, your wordpress.com signin doesn't work, it says "You do not own that identity", even when I'm already signed in beforehand.]

76:

As long as there is money being made, telemarketers will find ways, regardless of technology or system design. How can profiting from cold calls be eliminated? It amazes me that anyone would give up money (or personal information sufficient to enable theft) this way, so these are minds I do not understand.
It makes me think of how effectively modern political machinators have discouraged voting, and wish that these powers would be used for good instead of evil.

77:

Like others, I don't even plug a hand set in to my DSL land line. Which I only have because I figure it's probably more secure than cable modem and using the cable for everything seems like supporting monopoly. But telemarketers have driven me nuts for years, since at least the late 90s, on any land line anywhere. Merciless. Back then I had all kind of reasons why I HAD to be available. I had subordinates and superiors who might call at any time and who I had to deal with professionally. So I was a captive audience, at all hours. But now I don't have that problem any more.

My satellite TV has a little popup come up and let me know when my land line is getting a call. Happens all the time and I just laugh. I could turn it off but I enjoy thinking of some telemarketer wasting time. Not necessarily waking up at midnight or running from the bath, but still, they could be calling someone else.

I use my cell (mobile) phone as my actual phone. I have NEVER gotten a sales call on any cell phone I've had through the years in any state. However, when I moved where I live now and got a new number I got lots of calls from bill collectors looking for the previous owner of the number. The pizza parlor down the street still refuses to start making me a pizza until I came in and pay in advance. They have caller ID set up to identify previous deadbeats. If I ever meet "Steve" he has some explaining to do.

Other than Steve related stuff, the cell is absolutely optimal, though the land line has uses.
II misplace my cell phone I can hook a handset up to the land line and call myself, then follow the sound. Also, when I have to give a phone number to somebody I know is just collecting them to sell to telemarketers (why does Big Lots need my phone number to give me a discount card?) I just give the handsetless landline number--with a completely carefree conscience. That IS a phone number and it's MY number. Not the number for directory asssistance. I give my actual (cell) number to people I trust. It works so far. If somebody started abusing my cell number, I would just switch numbers (probably at a small cost), and let my remaining friends know the new one.

It seems the reason cell phones are so much better than land lines in America is that it is illegal to autodial to a cell phone here. Heard that on the news, explaining that polls were probably affected by it since the demographics is skewed to overrepresent demographic sectors that have landlines.

78:

why does Big Lots need my phone number to give me a discount card?

To pay for the discount by using your number in telemarketing.

It seems the reason cell phones are so much better than land lines in America is that it is illegal to autodial to a cell phone here.

But there is a way to fake out the system and make the calls virtually untraceable. The FTC is after a few of them. Especially that "sound of ships horn, followed by you have won a cruise, please stand by to talk to our xxx?" I get that one about once a month. Calls are spoofed to appear to come from WA state.

79:

On the place I just moved out from, I had a handset with caller display, since I'd be at the PC I'd quickly google the number and 9 times out of 10 the first result would be a telephone spam list full of complaints.

There's also a lot of sites full of autogenerated numbers trying to mooch on that traffic source, the cleverer ones did both, had autogenerated numbers and the ability to add feedback for complainants to populate the database.

80:

It seems to me that the way to deal with these kinds of spammy automated calls is to use automation at the receiving end. I haven't tried it myself, but I've heard Asterisk can be run on something as low-powered as a Raspberry Pi, and I understand it can be used to implement IVR (the much-hated system used by many incoming call centres that requires callers to navigate a menu system by entering numbers on their keypad).

At the most basic, I imagine you could use Asterisk to implement a very simple CAPTCHA-style test ("Press 5 to demonstrate you're human"), and either disconnect failed attempts or redirect them elsewhere in order to waste their time. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a way to require a password from callers to put them through as well, and I understand there are ways to subscribe to a shared blacklist as well.

Surely it wouldn't be out of the question for some manufacturer to begin selling small inexpensive home PBX systems?

81:

Interesting topic. We just moved our old number to new service, a combination of a phone company supplied DSL and VOIP package that turns out to have some handy features.

Here in the USA we also have a Do Not Call list, but legislatively and by court decision it resembles Swiss cheese. There are holes... Political campaigns and charities (including the for-profit solicitors that pocket most of a charitable contribution) are exempt, as are businesses one has a "business relationship" with. Apparently buying a list of phone numbers from a business one has dealt with is sufficient to establish a business relationship with the buying business. Collection agencies trying to track someone down are also exempt.

Given that the Do Not Call list is ineffective, I had to rely on other means. Playing a recording of the three-tone "not in service" sound sometimes worked. Picking up the phone and remaining silent until I recognized the caller sometimes worked, but weirded out friends and family. Answering only in French could be fun. These didn't really have too much effect on junk call frequency, though, which rose shalt this past fall as the US four year Crazy People Cycle peaked.

We switched to that new phone service in October, as it was both cheaper than the Plain Old Telephone Service, and included a bunch of neat features that were extra on POTS, including caller ID and call blocking. Our little household cordless phone system turns out to also have considerable smarts related to caller ID, and as others have mentioned, our set top boxes even do caller ID display.

We've gone with a combination of whitelisting and blacklisting. The telephones have been programmed with a directory of all our friends, relatives, and businesses we will talk to. Calls from them are announced with a ring and speech synthesized "Call from.." message (OK, excessively cute entertainment value item). Callers we don't have in the directory get a different ring, so we can glance at the phone display or TV if on and see if we want to bother picking up. Nuisance calls ("Is your neighbor Ray there? He owes us money!") go onto the blacklist with three button presses on the handset, so we never hear from them again.

This really cut down on the ringing telephone in late October and early November, and has kept things nice and quiet since then.

82:

Usually callers aren't allowed to hang up on a potential customer, so rather than swearing at them and hanging up, it's better to put them on speakerphone and give them a half-hour of infomercials. They note that sort of behavior in their databases.

83:

I got rid of my land line years ago and now make due with two cell phones (one work and one personal) and Google Voice. Only my closest friends and relatives get my direct personal cell number, everyone else gets my Google Voice number. If a telemarketer gets through my Google Voice wall I just add them to the Google Voice blocked number list. I much prefer texting and e-mail to voice anyway.

84:

The trick with being verbally abusive is to never raise your voice: aim for the measured tones of the BBC World Service Explaining Things To Foreigners.

Also: have a system, and a script which you can return to, calmly but forcefully, with a pause for the inevitable interruptions that conveys contempt by resuming without regard for (or even an acknowledgement of) their inconsequential interjections:


CALL #1: Thank you for your call today. In response for wasting my time, I would like you to shut up and go away, and never call me again.

CALL #2: I have asked you not to call again. Kindly F*** Off.

CALL #3: You have been asked, with all the respect that you deserve, not to call again.

* Pause to ignore whatever tbey are saying *
* Speak as though you are the inevitable rise of the tide, flowing calmly over all before it. Stand up, stand straight, speak with utter confidence and disregard for all that lies before you and beneath you *


I will therefore clarify my advice to you, and your repellent associates:

F*** Off.

F*** forwards, backwards and sideways without regard to injury, public decency and anatomical impossibility.

F*** domestic pets, household appliances, industrial machinery, implements for gardening, and barnyard animals.

F*** each other in your place of work, and delight in the exchange of parasites, venereal diseases, vomit and the stench of one another's filth and moral degradation.

F*** your partners if they haven't filed the papers for divorce and sought restraining orders to prevent it: I do not doubt that you are perfectly suited to each other.

Above all: go and F*** yourself, in public or in private, with whatever implements you can insert by aid of lubrication or brutality.

* Pause to ignore them and resume your explanation, with no change in tone, as if nothing has been said *

Should you require further clarification, I will be happy to provide it, at whatever time I find convenient.

In the meantime, thank you for your attention, and F*** Off.
.
.
.
.
.
.


Feel free to print this out and keep it by the telephone. I should warn you that I have been threatened with prosecution by some manager or other in a firm of double-glazing salesmen, and by a direct-sales unit associated with a prominent telecoms provider with an unfortunate (and hopefully unfounded) reputation for tax evasion.

In theformer case, I thanked him for the call, politely, and asked him to proceed without delay, as I looked forward to repeating my remarks to his face, in open court, before the media and the public.

As he seemed to be at something of a loss, I asked if I should take his call as the request - which, in all fairness, I had invited - for clarification of my free advice on himself, or his colleagues? And on some specific act with barnyard animals, household appliances, and/or gardening equipment? Or on venereal diseases and his moral degradation?

I warned that I would have to charge him for my time if it proved necessary to extend my explanations to his personal proclivities and marital relations: but I regret to say that he rang off.

I've heard nothing since, from either company.

85:

I keep the landline because it's the only way to get DSL hereabouts, and because almost everybody likely to call me at home knows that number, not my cell. The landline is unlisted, which reduces the number of unwanted local calls. We use caller ID plus an answering machine to screen callers whose number we don't recognize. Also, if we do pick up the line for an unidentified caller, they get about two seconds to say something before we hang up. Anybody else can leave a message if they really want to talk, and we can ignore it if we don't want to hear it. It mostly works -- we got through election season without listening to a political bot for more than about one sentence.

Years ago when I worked at a music store, we had a goldfish bowl full of guitar picks on the counter. When we got annoying calls, we'd put the receiver in the bowl and shake it for a while. I'd love to have that bowl of flatpicks back to use on phone spammers.

I'd really like to have the landline back at work, though -- I'm at a local newspaper, and of course the phone is one of our major tools. The owners decided a few months back to stop paying for the landline and give everybody in the office iPhones. Which would be great, except you can't transfer calls -- so if somebody needs to talk to the sports editor or ad rep but hits my menu number instead, I've either got to ask them to call back or walk down the hall to deliver a message. And it's hard to cradle the thing against your shoulder while you take notes -- yeah, I know about speakerphone, but if the guy at the next desk is on the phone at the same time, that's not an option. We won't even talk about the erratic reception -- it can usually be improved by going outside, but that ain't gonna happen when it's freezing rain...

On the other hand, we can use the iPhones for other stuff (video, photos, internet, etc.) and we get to take them home, so I guess it's not all bad.

86:

My rule of thumb. If I don't recognise the number or it's Unknown... unless I'm expecting a certain call from a number that doesn't come up (our Vet for example), I'll push it to VM.

If they don't leave me a VM, it was Spam.

If the number comes up, doesn't leave a VM, I'll check one of the websites for reporting spam and report them.

87:

Oooh, right. Or at least cell integration isn't available for non-US numbers. (I think you can still have an account with your own GVoice number... it'll just technically be a U.S. number. It is probably still a pain.)

Still, I think that the concept of the white-list screen is a reasonable way forward that doesn't involve handing over data in an abuseable way.

88:

The US has a situation where customers have come to expect free or heavily discounted brand new phones every 2 years, putting the companies in the position of giving away $400-$600 interest free up front to customers. Plus due to population density of the US, they end up having to offer the same bandwidth and coverage to regions with a few thousand people as they do to cities with millions.

To recoup this, this charge customers more over time, getting much of their revue from data charges, texting fees, etc.

Heck, due to discounts, I was actually paid $50 to take a brand new Motorola Atrix 2 last time I upgraded...

89:

I haven't had a landline in about 8 years. My wife and I both had cellphones with more minutes than we used, free long distance, etc. I didn't see the point in paying for one. I pretty much only use it to talk to my parents and call the occasional call to a business. My friends and I all text or use various messaging services. And I Skype my sister since she's overseas. If I needed to, I could go all VOIP but so far it hasn't looked cost effective.

The only place I really use phones is at work, since I interview a lot of people over the phone. But I'd actually rather Skype them, if it became more accepted and common.

90:

What I object to is telephony being cheap for the scammers and expensive for me. I remember when my phone bill was about $40 per quarter (3 months), but these days it's about $160 per month between 50G download on the webs, landline phone and mobiles for hubby & I, and we don't even make many phone calls. Australia telecommunications industry bites. Telstra, the privatised former govt telecommunications provider, refuses to allow us to have ADSL2 with a competitor. It's Telstra and be robbed blind or unreliable wireless.
-_-
And yeah, when the landline rings it's usually either cold-calling or hang-ups.

91:

I have a low tech solution (sort of). Get a foreign number from a non English speaking country and redirect it to your English phone
1 Not a lot of people in low wage countries speak Dutch, Danish or Finnish.
2 Your language recognition software can easily pick out a foreign language.

92:

The US has a situation where customers have come to expect free or heavily discounted brand new phones every 2 years, putting the companies in the position of giving away $400-$600 interest free up front to customers.

Actually, the US has arrived where the rest of the world was at a decade ago :) - welcome!

Where the US has not caught up is in the range and scope of handsets available to consumers. Typically in the UK you pick a phone, then select a carrier to go with it and sign a contract or pay more for a contract free phone.

I find the US positively medieval in that regard.

93:

Our solution to this problem is to have our answering machine permanently on. Close friends get your cell number. To everyone else, we politely apologize that we are out and if you need to contact us call our cell number (not given) or leave a message.

Ideally, we would like a silent answering machine with some sort of a password or enter extension number bypass that would then ring. As it is, we just tuck the phone away were we can't hear it.

Most spam callers hang up on getting a prerecorded message. Of those that persist, the first few syllables give the game away, so deleting them is a process somewhat akin to clearing spam email by looking at the message lines.

As far as telemarketers are concerned, we're out. We're always out.

94:

I ask tele-marketers to hold on for a second, and put the phone down on the desk. Then I go about my business.

10 or 15 minutes later, whenever I remember, I just hang up.

Hopefully I can waste enough of their time to make their whole enterprise unprofitable.

Think of it as manual tar pitting.

95:

We have an accidental solution.

There are four of us living here, several with moderate to severe hermitish tendencies. When we set up the phones, the two incoming lines go to a mini-PBX with an auto-attendant where you enter the code for the person you wanted to talk to.

No robots manage to navigate this, and very few people. I get far fewer than one sales call a week.

Several of the suggested approaches will replicate this success (security codes, knock codes).

If we wanted to go cell-only, I'd have to install some kind of booster for multiple cell networks (or get people to change their cell providers); we have really shitty reception in the basement (pretty mediocre on the first floor; maybe some combination of location and the wire mesh underlying the stucco).

96:

4 years ago, when my wife and I moved form Georgia to Oregon, we got Oregon area code numbers from Google Voice and started handing those out to new friends and acquaintances and putting them down as our home phone numbers on forms. We also told most of our old friends that this was the new number at which they could reach us. This allows us to curate phone traffic just by adjusting the gVoice filters, determining who gets through, who gets sent directly to voice mail and who gets to speak to the singing void. Family members still have our GA area code number, the one that's connected to our [mobile carrier] account. Any unrecognized number from a GA area code is now, by definition, spam or a wrong number and gets blocked or ignored. And since we don't have a land line (cable Internet) we effectively get no unwanted calls.

97:

Some of us do need traditional voice lines and will for a long time. I spend many hours/week on teleconferences and participants who are on Skype or mobile phones always are annoying the rest of us, between dropping randomly, having terrible voice quality, echo cancellation issues, and on and on. Also, I don't even get mobile signal inside my steel-framed apartment building most of the time.

I'd like to see a crowdsourced system for filtering out telemarketers. Press some special *## combination on the phone and the number is reported upstream and aggregated; once it passes a threshold, it's blocked by the telcos / reported as probably spam in CID / other options. There are already databases like this that I can search while the phone is still ringing, but integrating them into call delivery would be great.

My ISP (Sonic.net) delivers traditional voice along with ADSL2+, but with a bunch of additional twists - voicemail that goes to an email folder, soon the ability to setup personal CID filters, etc. Expect much more of this.

98:

Up in my part of the Great White, most of our voice-spam is from various Indian chaps working for "Air Duct Cleaning Services". I have call display, and the numbers are always different and always false — but unfortunately in the same way that my Chinese friend's calls show up when she uses a computer to voice-call me* so when I'm expecting a call I answer.

Apparently if you hire them your chance of a burglary goes up, if you have any expensive-looking stuff in your house…

I've tried asking them to hold on while to go to another phone (they hang up in two minutes, call back later that day), and managed to keep one chap talking for almost half an hour when I was bored on day ("I have ducts? What do they look like?"), but the most fun I had was getting them to describe the procedure then object that it was cruel ("That sounds cruel, sticking a vacuum in my ducks. What if the poor birds choke. Couldn't you, like, wash them gently with shampoo instead?")

*I have the telco-provided call blocking set to block all calls without a number, but unfortunately I can't implement the password feature because she can't get my telco to recognize it — something to to with internet telephony, apparently, but trying to manage asynchronous tech support between a Canadian telco customer service drone, an American internet phone company, and a user with decent but non-technical English on a Chinese-version OS was beyond me.

99:

I keep a landline because they are mostly impervious to disasters. Hurricane hits (I live in Florida) and the power goes out, the landline still works. For the same reason I'd keep my bicycle when they start selling flying cars.

100:

This is creating some inter-generational tensions.

I am in my late 40s, my wife in her early 40s, our children are 18 and 12. I am highly introvert and have great trouble making phone calls. My family does not share my affliction but we all predominantly use iMessage or SMS to keep in touch, with each other and with colleagues and friends. If you call me, either I know you and it's about something too large or complex to express in short messages, or I don't know you and probably don't want to talk to you.

Older people however, my dear mother in particular, still seem to see the phone as Charlie described: a lifeline, a form of realtime social contact you could experience while isolated at home. Local calls to landlines in Australia are untimed, which means you can talk for hours every day for a few tens of cents. Calls to mobiles from landlines OTOH are timed and in the order of $1 a minute.

We recently unplugged the landline phone because almost the only calls we received were "Adam" in Bangalore from "Windows" or "Technical Support". While naked DSL is a thing in Australia, we are mid contract with a landline and ADSL bundle. Simply unplugging the phone was the simplest option.

So now we have stalemate. My mother expects us to simply make a phone call, which is not something we are used nor inclined to do. She won't call us because she fears it costs too much. We would happily SMS her a dozen times a day, but she can apparently neither read a text without accidentally deleting her contact list, nor can she send one.

101:

In Sweden there is a page that solves it pretty neatly, http://vemringde.se/ . Whenever a salesperson calls me I register the number they call from on that page (or through the app).
You can choose to block the numbers listed in their database, based on how many times they have been registered.

102:

There is the potential for an amusing and diverting arms race here between spammers, genuine callers and those being called.

Call receivers spend extra money trying to avoid spam. Non spam callers spend extra money trying to get through and spammers spend extra money trying to circumvent the filters.

And the telecoms infrastructure grows in proportion to the amount of spam being hurled around it. Which is fine, if it all goes to voice mail and auto-delete, except that we’re paying 5% per annum for the capital tied up in providing the infrastructure.


How could we collectively make the marginal cost of making a spam call greater than the marginal utility?

103:

On the subject of finding out who a call comes from, the UK site that I use is http://whocallsme.com/ - OTOH, it doesn't (AFAIK) have that blacklist ability.

104:

c.f. Charlie's scenario for the rise of artificial intelligence: filters get better and better at distinguishing real people from robospammers, robospammers get better and better at emulating real people. In the end, the two sides get so good at modelling the behaviour of each other (and of us) that they become indistinguishable from us.

And SkyNet turns out to be merely an overly-preemptive anti-spam blocker.

So be careful about arms races. They're amusing right up to the point you end up in the crosshairs.

105:

The thing about arms races is that it isn’t that easy to avoid getting involved in one if the other side is determined.

107:

Years ago (2008) I worked on a huge strategy consulting report that among other things forecast that the marginal cost of voice minutes was going to zero and in the future that bit of telephony was going to be free.

On the other hand, all the other interaction affordances involved in a phone call were only going to be more valuable as telephony itself became more abundant. Value would migrate to the domain before the call, after the call, and in parallel with the call. Unfortunately, we argued, the problem was that they were simply unavailable, not provided as such.

For example, why do we still not know if anyone's going to pick up before we make calls? Back then you used to get people saying that presence was impossible on mobile because battery life, as if it was impossible to design a network protocol that batched updates. But even without that you could get it as needed, when the user selected that contact from the list.

Why don't we know if voicemail is going to pick up? And what capabilities the voicemail server has?

Why don't we have any reasonable way to refer to a past or indeed future conversation when starting a call? Why don't we pass information along with a call, like a cookie, in call centre PBX routing? Why can't multiple calls be tagged and linked as a thread? Why isn't SMS even really threaded?

The really depressing thing is that all the technical enablers are available. Open Helpdesk. SIP. XMPP. HTTP OPTIONS for self documenting REST. Asterisk. But nobody cares.

I know some really smart people in (almost always) US startups that work on Voice 2.0, but it's five years on since I started with this and it's still a cult. Fonolo, IfByPhone, Freespee, Voxeo Labs/Tropo, Twilio*.

*who could have had me as their developer relations guy, if their recruiter hadn't interpreted "knows Python and HTML" as "knows HTML".

108:

I do actually suspect that the eventual solution will be that Android or whatever ships with its own canned Asterisk server on your phone, and you do with it as you wish. A pity, as network-side redirection is useful.

109:

I was day-dreaming, and a question occurred to me.

Can the fire extinguisher systems in data centres stop a thermite reaction?

I don't think they can. The reaction is the reduction of iron oxides to provide the oxygen to oxidise aluminium, releasing large amounts of heat. So you can't smother it. And thermite would be a metal fire...

No, I am not going to sneak into a call centre and leave a thermite grenade on top of the server rack.

110:

Are we talking about the data content of the individual call? There are legal constraints on when you can record conversations, particularly if you want to do anything more than replay them as an aide memoire.

Or about metadata; when I last called you, how long we spent talking; type stuff? In this case, I think the present, if not future, demand may be less than you think.

In any event, my mobile keeps ingoing and outgoing SMS and their metadata, and metadata about voice calls as it is.

111:

Both. Your phone keeps metadata, but only the pen register, but does it *do* anything useful with it? what if you could attach notes of what happened on the call?

Recording is a step further. At the moment, the legal protection stops whenever you call someone with more power than you, because all organisations play a "your call may be recorded for training purposes" message at you. I see no reason why I shouldn't do the same:-)

Anyway, recording is just more voicemail, as all it gives you is an fat-arse unstructured media blob. Speech-to-text transcription, well, that's actually useful as it gives you structured text that you can assimilate much faster, that can be searched, and that can be processed automatically.

112:

I already have devices for keeping notes of call content; they're called "pen and paper" and "this computer".

The full text transcript initially sounds useful, but without the original voice, would be non-evidentiary quality, since you couldn't prove that it hadn't been editted.

This may be a bit "devil's advocate", but it's only when people ask "apparently glossed over questions" that some ideas prove fatally flawed.

113:

No, but "is this evidence in a criminal court" is a second- or third-order issue.

It is, of course, trivially possible to verify the authenticity of digital texts using GPG + your favourite hash function.

114:

As we live in a land where 90% of the population can't grasp CTRL+F (or CMD+F on a Mac) to search, much less regular expressions, I would not want to be the person who had to explain GPG and hashing to one of m'learned friends on the bench.

Yes, there are technologically savvy lawyers and judges. I know some of them and they're scary-bright. But if you don't pull one you run the risk of running into Popular Beat Combo territory.

More to the point, any tech solution to the telephone spam problem needs to be one that is accessible to at least 50% of the population with land lines, and preferably 90%. That means anyone who isn't drastically cognitively impaired and who can use a regular telephone.

We are a self-selected group. To most people, computers are hard.

115:

" I would not want to be the person who had to explain GPG and hashing to one of m'learned friends on the bench."

It's easy - GPG etc is used by people with something to hide. Probably criminals, terrorists, drug dealers and pedophiles. Doubly so for Tor et al.

116:

Er... should that be PGP?

117:

PGP is now the commercial company. GPG is the parallel open source project.

118:

There are legal precedents for this, have been for the last 15 years. Digital signatures are recognised. This argument is a regression.

119:

Also, if the fact that GPG is at work is visible to a learning-refusing user, the application design is inadequate.

120:

Lat century I wrote a piece for a GP newspaper about anonymous call rejection. http://www.defoam.net/writing/acr1.htm

(Since the server is being replaced, here is a Google cache link to it

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:ZKcz1if1hFwJ:http://www.defoam.net/writing/acr1.htm%2Bmidgley+caller+telephone&hl=en&safe=off&gs_l=heirloom-serp.3...17662.25518.0.25763.31.28.0.0.0.2.100.1489.27j1.28.0...0.0...1c.1.-oMhUh733P8&ct=clnk

)

Bear in mind that some organisations might have many people replying to calls not made by the person who sits at the desk answering the main phone.

121:

We are a self-selected group. To most people, computers are hard.

And most of the "we" don't get it. We tend to ridicule the non "we" groups as stupid. Then wonder why "we" are thought of as anti-social.

Oh, well.

122:

Voice innovation watch: https://symposia.harqen.com/tour

123:

#114, also #121 - Well, I (and a colleague) have just spent 3 days off and on trying to persuade someone that the reason they were losing file extensions when they saved attachments from Mozilla Thunderbird was that they had the Windoze "hide file extensions for known file types" setting set "on", with the result that the file names were being truncated at the '.' character.

I'm actually not convinced that they fully understood that the extension ".pdf" is what tells Windoze that a pdf is a pdf.

So I feel your pain.

124:

I'm actually not convinced that they fully understood that the extension ".pdf" is what tells Windoze that a pdf is a pdf.

You're already a step too far down the techie line: most people have no idea what a PDF is. In fact, I'd guess that something in the range 40-60% of users have no idea what a file is. And 70-80% have no idea what HTML is.

We might as well be talking about timing belts and limited-slip differentials to bus passengers.

125:

The problem of knowing who to allow to call you seems to be an authentication problem. I think one of the best solutions would be to handle it with a web of trust, ideally, the same one used in the gpg community.

That way, trusted folk and folk they trust (or whatever) can get through, untrusted folk never get through and other people can talk to a bot and caller spoofing won't work against it.

I was talking with a colleague of mine not so long ago about technically simple approaches to social networks that would make them highly distributed and robust as well as running on various standards (rdf, webID, gpg). I don't think it's an impossibility to get a lot of people using crypto eventually.

If we don't start securing our communications with cryptography through gpg, tor and so on, we'll quickly lose what privacy we still have online.

126:

See, my issue was that they were saying "when I save attachments, Windoze 'forgets'* what sort of files they are", understood that they had to rename myfile as myfile.pdf to get Adobe reader to open it automatically, but would not unset "hide extensions for known file types" even when 2 separate people said that this was the problem.

* my ''.

127:

One guy I know had HUGE problems when people sent him a .doc He would click on the attachment and open it in Office, write a reply, hit save and send it. Then wonder where the .doc he had just saved actually was, because it was not in "Documents". The concept of downloading an attachment first had not occurred to him.

128:

I presume he didn't have the "save outgoing e-mail to $folder" setting active?

129:

He would not have a clue that such a thing existed

130:

I actually think we need to learn much more about how people fail to learn how to use computers. I'm not sure the deficit model - they lack information, or alternatively, using them effectively requires too much information - is valid here.

People who use the standard file-in-folder paradigm literally every day, who are constantly dealing with it, seem to learn pathologically, internalising representations of it that are violently at odds with what they see, and adopting crazily odd ways of doing things.

I also wonder if the whole project of "user friendliness" was a fundamentally bad idea and skeuomorphism is a learning-destroying antipattern.

In a really broad view, I wonder if you can't see this as a sort of massive unrecognised societal rebellion, a work-to-rule on a global scale. It does parallel the flat-wages neoliberal age, after all.

It's also interesting that the one application that the mass market got even vaguely competent on was the web (even if there seems to be a fatal attraction to TYPING URIS INTO GOOGLE).

131:

With Outlook defaults, guess where his doc was then!

132:

I can tell you how many older people fail to learn. They want to do IMPORTANT WORK NOW!, not piss about learning all the nerdy shit stuff like kids playing with toys.

133:

We might as well be talking about timing belts and limited-slip differentials to bus passengers.

I'd like to think they'd figure, "Timing belt? That's some engine part, apparently; the engine must need that. Do we need a new one?" Unfortunately, I've seen too many reactions of, "Timing belt? That's an engine part! Don't tell me about that! I'm not a mechanic; don't tell me about parts!"

134:

There is a possible entertainment opportunity hidden in telemarketing (at least by humans):

A friend who is an author keeps a few books near the door and one next to the telephone (he works at home). He use to really hate the interruptions of these type of calls until he turned the tables on them...
NOW: he has a canned spill of his own: "Yes, I would love to hear about your opportunity, but only if you would be willing to take a few moments to listen to this great opportunity to own your own copy of my most recent book..."

He reports that often HE gets hung up on...

NOTE: love your writing, wife loves your writing and is on a second read to go back and find all the funny bits...

135:

@a.harrowell

Value would migrate to the domain before the call, after the call, and in parallel with the call. Unfortunately, we argued, the problem was that they were simply unavailable, not provided as such.... The really depressing thing is that all the technical enablers are available. Open Helpdesk. SIP. XMPP. HTTP OPTIONS for self documenting REST. Asterisk. But nobody cares.

It sounds nice, but I think there's no money in it in the developed world, and here's why:

I hate talking on the telephone. There are only a tiny handful of people who are important enough to me to overcome this basic aversion. But if one of them calls, it is almost certainly important enough to interrupt anything I might be doing at the time. And several of them will not provide meaningful outbound caller ID, because they are scared of revealing their telephone number to everyone they call (this was rational at one time, due to a situation too complicated to explain here; circumstances have changed but their habits have not).

As a result, while in theory you could make legacy telephone service better for me by allowing me to distinguish that tiny handful of people who get the priority interrupt, and send everyone else either to voicemail (ideally with auto-transcription to email) or a black hole, you're not going to get me to pay for anything purporting to do so, absent a really convincing explanation for how you will get the aforementioned people who don't provide outbound caller ID to buy in.

Now I have the impression that I am a bit of an outlier in my aversion to phone conversations, but I don't know anyone in my demographic cohort or younger who likes them, so I think value-add features relating to voice service ... just aren't all that valuable to the very people who would be the early adopters.

136:
People who use the standard file-in-folder paradigm literally every day, who are constantly dealing with it, seem to learn pathologically, internalising representations of it that are violently at odds with what they see, and adopting crazily odd ways of doing things.

I would love to see some detailed studies on this. I've observed what I think is a related phenomenon. My relatives who did not grow up with computers can be divided into two classes. One group believes they could understand the machine, if they put in the effort. Some of these people have put in the effort, some have (reasonably) decided that they do not need to know more than a little. Generally these people are pretty good at knowing how much they know, and do not adopt, as you put it, internal representations violently at odds with what they see.

The other group believes that they cannot learn to understand the machine, no matter how much effort they might put in. As a result they do not try, and they actively deflect efforts to teach them anything. One person told me flat out that a basic utility (copy and paste) worked for me but would not work for them because they were "too stupid." These people do tend to have internalized representations that are pathological; but if you asked them, they would deny having any internal representation.

Also, which group a person is in seems to have no bearing whatsoever on how adept they are at using a computer for tasks that are actually important to them -- one of my relatives in the second group is a skilled digital artist, for instance. (In that regard, it probably helps that the original MacPaint was a work of genius, and its successors seem to have preserved most of its brilliant transparency. I wouldn't be surprised if there were lots of people who did not conceptualize "making digital art" as a subcategory of "using a computer".)

137:

A friend of mine from college used to keep a copy of the mass market Necronomicon by the door. He was a legend among local Jehovah's Witnesses.

138:

"But I must admit that spam calls give me a perfect opportunity for some stress-reducing rudeness."

I've taken to not being rude at them. I talk to them; find out the names of their kids, what sort of area they live in. That sort of thing.. The kind of conversation they'd regret having if I turned out to be a nutter, but it's OK because I'm a reasonably personable chatty person.

Then I calmly tell them that if their company ever calls me again I'll find their children and cut their faces off and hang up.


It is surprisingly effective at preventing recidivism...

139:

We could get the phone book back.

If you want a general-purpose whitelist, then the residential section of the phone book would be a pretty good start.

140:

I got rid of my landline phone because the only calls I got on it were telemarketers and my mother, whom I'm trying to teach to use Skype instead. My Internet is now via TV cable (which I also don't use for TV).

At least calling to mobile phone is still ludicrously expensive, so I'm not getting any calls on that. As for white-listing problems: When they have to send a request first (like in Skype), it's pretty easy to get right.

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