Do not call… or e-mail?

Not that there’s any good time for a telemarketer to call, but they always seem to pick the worst moments — dinnertime, sleeping-in-Saturday-morning time, in-the-washroom-but-expecting-an-important-call-so-I-run-out-wearing-a-towel time. Unless it’s an automated call, which I loathe, the smart telemarketers start off by acting like they know you, building a rapport, in order to put you off guard before launching into a sales pitch. It’s hard to interrupt if you want to be polite, and for some reason I feel rude hanging up. Too Canadian, maybe, making the mistake of assuming there’s an actual human being on the other end of that line when it’s really some sort of subhuman with basic language capability that has no moral filter against bothering people in the middle of dinner in the hope of earning a piddling commission.

That may seem a little harsh given that some of the callers are probably phoning from places like Bangalore, India where people are desperate for the work, but considering that I will always say no to whatever telemarketers are selling out of principle I’m of no use to these people anyway. I’m not going to get an MSNB or CitiBank credit card because I feel bad for a resident of a developing country.

Like spam, telemarketing is nothing more than digital panhandling, and for the record, I stopped giving money to panhandlers as well. I used to bring all my change with me downtown and give it away because I figured it helped people and it made me feel god. Then someone pointed out that I’m only perpetuating the situation — some panhandlers will just use that money for drugs or booze, which won’t help them, and they won’t seek real assistance as long as they can scratch a living hustling for change on the streets. By giving away change, I’ve contributed to the increase of able-bodied, casual panhandlers out there that are likely intercepting the change that could go to the actual needy.

But I digress. The purpose of this column is to celebrate the imminent launch of a Canadian National Do Not Call (NDNC) program by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. It’s been three years in coming, but last December the CRTC signed an agreement with Bell Canada to manage the list.

Basically, you can call a toll-free number or e-mail the government (at an address still to be announced) and have your home and cell numbers added at no charge. Telemarketers based in Canada are expected to respect the list and not call any of the numbers, or face fines and other possible consequences if they violate your privacy. The list comes into effect on Sept. 30, 2008, and registrations are good for three years.

The list applies to all Canadian numbers, including landlines, cell phones and fax machines, and Canadian telemarketers only. That doesn’t prevent calls from telemarketers outside of the country, or from various groups that are exempt from the law — registered charities, political parties, nomination contestants, opinion polling firms, newspapers selling subscriptions, businesses where the consumer has an existing relationships (like Hudson’s Bay Canada calling HBC card holders) and business consumers.

There are some concerns about enforcement. Money for managing the list is expected to come from the telemarketers themselves who are required by law to register with the Do Not Call list, but unregistered telemarketers are bound to keep calling until they get caught or someone registers an official complaint. The mainstream groups can simply move their call centres overseas, while many of the companies that will telemarket, often on behalf of other companies, are basically numbered companies that can be disappeared quite easily without paying a dime in penalties.

In the U.S. the system has been a mixed success with about 150 million people registered, but so far just 34 companies have been fined for violations since 2003. DirecTV was the biggest offender, paying a $5.3 million fine, but they likely made several times more by telemarketing unchecked for so many years. Meanwhile the American registry has had to be bailed out by government several times when it was created to be self-funding.

My biggest complaint about the National Do Not Call list is that it doesn’t apply to e-mail telemarketers that flood me with 100 or more spam messages a day, which is far more serious than the two or three telemarketing calls we might get in a week. Clamping down on telephone telemarketers could result in even more spam as companies look for alternate channels like email to hawk their crap.

Unsolicited marketing is a growing annoyance, and preys on the elderly, the uneducated, the desperate and the gullible. There are almost too many legitimate marketing channels out there as it is, there’s no reason to allow forms of marketing we hate.

Incidentally, an article on the CBC suggests that telemarketing is a $4.1 billion industry in Canada that employs about 150,000 “people” at any given time. Who knew so many people had trouble hanging up?

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