Congratulations! & Other Invasions of Privacy


Washington. -- Let this be said of Robert Bulmash of Naperville, Illinois, as it has been said of other angry men: The fellow has an even temper: He stays mad.

Until a couple of years ago, Mr. Bulmash suffered in silence through the same irritations that irk most of us -- tailgaters, boom-boxes and people who leave chewing gum on the sidewalks. Not until he began to get repeated telephone sales pitches from Citibank did his thermometer climb to the boiling point.

As Mr. Bulmash told the story last week to a Senate subcommittee, his residential telephone number somehow got on a list used by Citibank to promote its credit card. The calling machine would ring up his phone at every inconvenient hour, and there was nothing Mr. Bulmash could do about it.

He complained to the bank, asking that his number be removed, but someone at the bank said the bank was not responsible; the auto-calling company was responsible. He managed to track down the auto-calling company, but it said it could not purge his name and number unless the bank ordered it to do so. This went on for six months.

Meanwhile, a "world-class resort" was bugging him with two-minute recordings urging him to visit its pools and tennis courts. Nothing could be gained by yelling at the recorded message, for the indifferent tape could not be insulted. Neither could anything be accomplished by hanging up, for the tape, like Old Man River, just kept rolling along.

It was all too much. Mr. Bulmash quit his job making robotic machines, took a part-time position in a lawyer's office, and founded Private Citizen Inc., to devote his energies toward combating "this monstrous invasion of our privacy." Now he has 600 dues-paying members who are as angry as he is about junk calls. Last week he came here to testify in support of Sen. Fritz Hollings' Automated Telephone Consumer Call Protection Act.

Senator Hollings had anecdotes of his own. A woman in Sumter, South Carolina, complained to him that within an hour after she came home from outpatient surgery, still groggy and aching for peace and quiet, the telephone rang. It was a recorded sales pitch for aluminum siding. As her recovery continued, her rest was interrupted by "a really unbeatable new bank card" and by a jovial cry of "Congratulations!" This was at 10:30 at night. She had won a prize in a contest she never had entered.

Other testimony came from Thomas A. Stroup, president of a trade association whose 650 members provide paging and cellular telecommunications services. He too was fed up. Time after time, he said, "autodialers" reach into paging systems. Some 11 million customers buy paging equipment; more than 6 million persons subscribe to cellular telephones. False pages from autodialers produce "enormous confusion" and tie up cellular equipment -- at the subscriber's expense.

It is pleasant to report that the autodialing industry itself agrees that things have gotten out of hand. The subcommittee heard from Richard A. Barton, a grandfatherly fellow who serves as a senior vice president for the Direct Marketing Association. Telephone solicitation, whether by recorded message or by live solicitors, is a small part of direct marketing but a large business nonetheless. Roughly 180,000 unsolicited solicitations go to 7 million telephones every day.

Mr. Barton was agreeable to an outright ban on sequential autodialing. He would prohibit calls to pagers and cellular phones. One of the most infuriating features of some autodialing systems is that a call does not disconnect until the tape runs its full course. Mr. Barton objected to the bill's requirement of a five-second disconnect as beyond today's technology, but he recognized the need for some limitation.

Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., presiding over the hearings, asked witnesses if they would ban telephone solicitations by the United Way, Red Cross and other non-profit charities. Most of them said, no, these serve a good public purpose, but Mr. Bulmash, staying in character, said he would prohibit charity calls as well. Let 'em send out letters instead.

My own thought is to say hooray for Mr. Hollings! Three cheers and a tiger for Mr. Bulmash! The world gets ruder, cruder and more insolent all the time. Manners have fled to the winds. Barbarians press upon the gates. The most precious of all rights, said Justice Louis Brandeis, is the right to be left alone. Farewell the autodialer! And good riddance.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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