Helen Martin: It’s time we engaged with the cold callers

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IT is one of the banes of modern life. You’re about to sit down to dinner, or watch TV, or crack open a bottle of vino with a friend, when the phone rings.

Yes, we all have voicemail, but it could be important. If your phone displays the number calling, you won’t recognise it – that’s the first warning. Or it may read “International”, in which case you have a decision to make. Is it your friend in America, in which case you would pick up, or is it yet another nuisance call asking if you’ve ever taken out payment protection insurance?

It’s not unusual to have several such calls a night, so it’s good to know that companies now face hefty fines from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for bombarding us with texts and calls . . . if the personal information they use to contact us was obtained illegally.

Unfortunately, that still leaves a huge proportion of cold callers who have acquired our numbers, names and details quite legally, because we have inadvertently ticked a box, or failed to tick a box, which allows a firm we are happy to deal with to sell our profiles to those we have never heard of and don’t want to engage with at all. Or they may have used that old-fashioned tactic of simply working through an old phone book.

If you are of a certain age, you will recall the heady days when junk mail was a novelty, phone calls were always from someone you knew, and e-mails, texts and therefore spam didn’t exist.

In one week I discovered approximately two-thirds of my mail is unwanted marketing which goes straight in the bin, ditto around of a third of my e-mails, and anywhere between four and ten phone calls a week are pestering me about PPI, energy efficiency, or encouraging me to claim for an accident I haven’t had.

Someone who used to sit at my office desk years ago clearly used the phone as a private contact number, resulting in the business line finding its way on to a personal directory. As many as seven calls a day, usually automated, interrupt my work and drive me crackers.

I’ve tried opting out of junk mail with the Royal Mail . . . a pointless exercise since their hi-tech method of complying is to tell the local postie I don’t want it. He can’t possibly remember who’s on his list, and I always forget to renew the request every year. It’s an opt-out designed to fail by Royal Mail, which now makes so much money from junk mail it can’t afford to carry on without it.

As for automated phone and e-mail messages, de-registering doesn’t work either and only serves to confirm it’s an active address or number.

I used to feel sorry for cold callers. They’re only doing a job, blah blah. But the volume of nuisance calls is now so high that any empathy or sympathy for their rotten job has been squeezed out of me. I’ve resorted to ever more imaginative means of getting my own back.

Sometimes I’m too tired to bother and just don’t answer. For a while I tried imitating an automated response and said: “I’m sorry, this number does not accept cold callers.”

Once I picked up with a cheery, if slurred, “Hullo rer!” following up with a drunk Glaswegian rant about my chips being cold (being a former Weegie that came as second nature).

Himself came up with a good wheeze when a gentleman from the sub-continent asked to speak to him by name. “Have you made an appointment?” he asked. “But is that Mr . . .?”
asked the caller again. “No. Mr . . . 
is a very busy man. I am his personal assistant. If you’d care to tell me why you want to speak to him I’ll try and make an appointment in his diary.”

It takes a bit of rehearsal, but if you keep the script by the phone you can try, “Hello, you have reached Martin Enterprises. If you would like to place an order, press 1. If you have your order number and wish to track its progress, press 2. If you wish to speak to Customer Services, press 3. . . .”

An easy option is to keep a CD player next to the phone and put them on “hold”, preferably to Gary Glitter. If you’re really adventurous, you can try your talents as an obscene phone caller and ask them what they wore to bed last night. And if you’re more of a sadist, you can always get hold of a police-strength whistle, which is 
moderately satisfying.

None of them though, actually stops the calls and nor does phoning the Telephone Preference Service, which only stops the legitimate, but no less annoying, sales calls.

But here’s the rub. We must assume that companies wouldn’t employ all these call centre staff, or run up the costs of automated calls, if they weren’t getting some business out of it. Someone out there is responding to them. If it’s you, for the love of God, stop it.