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Hard sell hell


Marketeers sell advertisers backdoor access to voice mail right under Bell's nose


I ran all my calls through a stand-alone answering machine to screen telemarketers for years, until I was shamed into updating to a voice mailbox by friends' pleas to "answer the phone, asshole!" Now, the hard-sell marketers have found a back door. It's called the Automatic Dialing and Announcing Device (ADAD), a cutting-edge technology that can be used to send pre-recorded advertisements directly to my voice mailbox without ringing the phone.

Personally, I chafe at having to fetch unsolicited messages from firewood companies, movers, radio shows, flower shops, politicians, police, banks and, ironically enough, companies specializing in this "non-intrusive" marketing technology.

Before undertaking the hassle-intensive chore of calling each of these businesses to have my number removed from their calling list (why isn't there a "press the pound key to be removed" option on these messages?), I call Bell customer service to grouse.

And discover that ADAD's backdoor legality has been before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for the past two years and remains in abject limbo.

Squaring off in a "paper hearing" before the CRTC are Bell and Toronto-based Infolink Communications Ltd.

CTRC regulations state that ADAD calls are permitted only "when there is no attempt to sell, such as calls for public service reasons, emergency purposes, calls to collect overdue accounts, market or survey research calls or calls to schedule appointments."

At the core of the Bell-Infolink clash is the question, is ringless ADAD use for solicitation contrary to CRTC regs?

ADADs are a lot like e-mail spam. Marketers ride on phone company infrastructure the way spammers do on the backs of Internet service providers.

Infolink president Cesar Correia, whose background is in "fax broadcasting," or junk faxing, had this brainstorm: "What a cool way of communicating if you could call people but not ring their phone."

Being a computer hack, he set to writing the software that trolls Bell's network for active voice mailboxes. Those numbers are stored as "good," and innumerable ringless messages can subsequently be fired into them until the holders cry foul.

"Maybe you can call it spam but it's been very effective. Our customers like it," says Correia. "We're not disturbing anybody, especially at dinnertime."

Infolink claims in its literature that it can send up to 25,000 messages per hour. Cursing a blue stream and moving on seems easier than making a call to complain about the unwanted messages. To do so, you have to call the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) to get on their DNC, or "do not call" list, which is distributed to CMA members, but the overwhleming majority of businesses are not members.

Says CMA media spokesperson Ed Cartwright, "We've been pretty upfront in saying that ADADs provide a legitimate and effective means for businesses to communicate with their existing customers."

The reality that random soliciting via ADADs occurs where no prior relationship with the called party exists is an issue conveniently sidestepped by the CMA. "That's something we haven't had a chance to consider ourselves," says Cartwright. Some speculate that if they're unchecked, backdoor ADAD outfits will proliferate like the telemarketing boiler rooms of yore. But Correia scoffs: "To use this type of program effectively, you need some pretty expensive equipment. You can't just do this from your basement."

He makes the point that it's totally legit to have a live person call to shake you down, so how can people take issue with a ringless pitch out the blue?

Perhaps. But no matter how you slice it, backdoor ADADs exploit paying customers' remote access to voice mail. And love it or hate it, Ma Bell bears the very real, not-so-hidden costs. Bell Network Access Service is pegged at 13.1 million users.

Bell lawyer David Elder elaborates. "There are parts of Toronto where we've had to upgrade our storage capacity just to keep up with the influx of ADAD messages. We don't really have the technical means of eliminating this problem without significantly curtailing the functionality that our voice mail subscribers currently enjoy."

Elder figures that any CRTC ruling is better than the current stasis. "We've had customers worried and afraid that people were able to tap into their system, because they'd be home and get a message but the phone never rang."

Over at the CRTC, they're still stewing. "From our perspective, there are no rules specific to that at the moment," says spokesperson Philippe Tousignant.

Right now, I'm trying to recall just where I shelved that once-again prized analog answering machine I was loath to retire in the first place.  

the end

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NOW Magazine Online Edition, VOL. 23 NO. 23
Feb 4 - 10, 2004
Copyright 2004 NOW Communications Inc.
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