Product review: I declare war on telemarketers

"Hi, this is Stan. How are you today?" Oh, jeez, another intrusive telemarketer calling, shattering a brilliant thought. (Now where was I?)"I'm terrific," I responded. "Can you hold a sec?" With a home phone and two business lines, I'm inundated with these calls. But this time, instead of following my usual modus operandi -- saying something obscene in Cobol and hanging up -- I turned to my PC and loaded Enigma. This slick program helps me thwart telemarketers and keeps them from calling back. Best of all, it's free.

"What's the name of the company you're calling for?" I asked, reading from the monitor (and ignoring the mangled prose).

"San Gabriel Register," he said cheerfully. (Yep, I made up that name to protect the obnoxious telemarketer and keep me out of court.)"Cool," I said supportively. "Could you please tell me your full name, Stan?"

Pause.

"Don't be shy," I prompted, a grin on my face. This was going to be fun.

"Did you know," I added, "the Federal Trade Commission says that a person or entity making a telephone solicitation must provide the full name . . ."

"Stan Schmendrick," he interrupted.

"Thanks, Stan," I said. "You realise that telemarketers have to keep and maintain a 'Do not call' list? And they can't call again for ten years?"

I stifled a giggle. See, just hanging up on the guy would get me nowhere. But with Enigma on my PC, I felt like the Telemarketer Terminator. The program prompts me with eight precise questions based on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, along with the text of the law. I ask each question, wait for the telemarketer to squirm, fill in the response, and keep a log. Simple. And I swear, it works.

"Can you wait a minute?" asked Stan, sounding like he'd swallowed his toothpick. I heard his headset hit the desk.

It gets better. If the company calls again within 12 months, you can sue for up to $US500 per violation. Nice.They must have a "don't call" written policy (no? the fine could be a whopping $10,000), and then the FTC may hit them for another somewhat paltry $500 if they don't send you a copy. Fun, huh?

The entire regulation is on the FTC site, http://www.ftc.gov/telemarketing. Better, visit the exhaustive Karen's Koncepts Anti-Telemarketer & Anti-Spam Page at http://www.netmegs.com/koncepts/telemark.htm. You can grab a copy of Enigma at http://www.verinet.com/~geoff/Enigma or from PC World Online at http://www.fileworld.com.

Stan's supervisor came on the line. She took my number and promised not to call again (for ten years, pal).

I had such a good time tormenting Stan that I decided to get Caller ID and screen all my calls. (Don't worry, Mom, your tech support calls will still get through.)Instead of buying a cheapie Caller ID gizmo, I splurged on Nortel's Meridian 9617, a two-line phone that connects directly to my PC's underused USB port. At $330, the Meridian isn't cheap, but its features make the price tag easier to swallow.

With Caller ID, the Meridian pops information about each incoming call onto my PC screen. Most local telemarketers don't block Caller ID, so once I have their numbers, I tell the phone to reject their calls. I've also set the Meridian to play different .wav files on my PC based on the caller's ID, so I can tell when my editor's calling by the sound -- for example, the braying of a mule.

I can seamlessly conference two callers using the Nortel PC software or tell the phone to page me when I'm out of the office. Easily the coolest function is Meridian's Voice Dialer. It lets me place a call by saying the person's name; using voice recognition software, the machine identifies the person and then dials the number. Best of all, the Meridian works even if my PC's powered down.

Hey, I've got to go, the phone's ringing. I hope it's Stan -- I could use the money.

Meridian 9617 USB

List price $330; Nortel Networks; +1 800/466-7835; http://www.nortel.com/phonesContributing editor Steve Bass is a licensed marriage and family therapist and president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group

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