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Caller Un-ID

Are you wasting your money on this telephone extra?

Am I the village idiot? I pay my local phone company, Pacific Bell, $6.17 a month for caller ID, which-theoretically-lets me see who's calling before I pick up. In an ideal world, caller ID would function like an old-fashioned secretary-that is, an easy call-screening tool. Some incoming calls demand instant action, so you'd pick up the receiver when you saw the number. With others, you'd let voice mail do the answering. That's the theory, but let me tell you, it's not working.

I get lots of junk calls. Seemingly every credit card company wants to sell me something-credit reports, insurance, more credit cards. I also get plenty of calls from public relations agencies that want me to put their clients in print-and though they're well-meaning, I can't write about everyone and flacks rarely accept rejection easily. I could waste all day talking to them.

So I need to winnow out calls to better use my time-a point that became critically obvious on the day I counted my calls and, out of 22, 14 were junk calls. So I called Pacific Bell, signed up for caller ID and relaxed because my troubles were over.

Hah! Here are the last 10 calls that came in:

  • Unknown Name
  • Unknown Caller
  • Unknown Name
  • Unknown Caller
  • Unknown Caller
  • Private Caller
  • Unknown Caller
  • My sister
  • Unknown Name

Yikes! I'm paying $73 a year to learn what I already knew-that I don't know who's calling!

Phone companies say they can't help this, for a couple of reasons. Any time you make a call, you can protect your own privacy by pressing a few buttons to invoke "selective caller ID blocking." Result: your number's blocked from the recipient's caller ID box.

A bigger reason is that large corporations buy blocks of numbers and use a single number to identify the whole block, treating individual phone lines more as extensions than as separate lines. The upshot: Those numbers show up as "masked"-meaning your caller ID won't tell you who's on the line. (See more about this here.)

Now phone companies aren't going to miss an opportunity to turn a buck. So they've begun offering "Anonymous Call Rejection," which routes all calls with blocked numbers to a special message center where callers hear that you don't answer blocked calls and to get through, they have to unblock their number. In Pacific Bell land, the service is free if you subscribe to caller ID ($1.90 monthly if you don't).

Is that a help? Maybe-but keep in mind that this is serious business. I've been spending as much as an hour daily fending off unwanted phone calls, and I would much rather put those minutes into revenue-producing activities. I wanted caller ID because I thought it would make me money, but so far it's been a bust.

Here's the only solution that comes to my mind: From now on, I will never answer the phone unless I can see exactly who's calling. The hitch? Probably 90 percent of my calls will go into voice mail, and, guess what, I'll waste more time listening to messages and playing phone tag with people whom I honestly need to talk to.

So that solution is riddled with inadequacies. Besides, given how many calls don't show up with enough information in caller ID, I might as well scrap the service, save $6.17 a month and just let all calls go into voice mail. Arrgghhh! Don't you just hate it when technology doesn't improve our lives one iota, when it really makes no difference at all except to put yet another gizmo on our already cluttered desktops and another dent in our bank accounts?


Robert McGarvey has covered the Web since 1995-just about forever in Internet years. He's the author of How to Dot.Com: A Step-by-Step Guide to E-Commerce. His columns appear in Entrepreneur magazine, HomeOfficeMag.com, TipWorld.com, and Porthole Magazine. Find out more by visiting his Web site, www.mcgarvey.net.

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