ST. LOUIS — Les Cameron used to get so many calls from telemarketers - 20 or more a day - he decided to strike back. He bought a gadget that fools their automatic dialers into thinking his line is dead. "It was a matter of self-protection," says the retired communications specialist from Lake Elsinore, Calif.
Now, the federal government is offering Americans an even cheaper and simpler way to stop telemarketers cold: a national do-not-call list. Consumers who sign up for the free service in the next two months will be granted a five-year gift of silence, starting Oct. 1, as product hawkers take them off their call lists.
Apparently there's no shortage of people who would rather not get a hot stock tip or a "free" vacation from someone they don't know. So many people are signing up - at 12 per second the first day - that the telemarketing industry believes it could lose up to half its sales.
That's an economic debacle few seem inclined to mourn. Faced with a tide of phone pitches and "spam" e-mails, consumers are beginning to fight back, experts say.
Last week, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched the national do-not-call list, Internet search-engine Google offered a test version of a new toolbar that blocks the "pop-up" ads that often spring to life unasked for.
Many observers say consumers are simply trying to readjust the balance back to an era before automatic dialers and the Internet made marketing so intrusive. To others, the move to build higher electronic walls of privacy looks more worrisome.
"Marketing has become so invasive that people are basically withdrawing from the public sphere," says Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group in Washington, D.C. "They're not posting their e-mail addresses online. They're increasingly placing filters between their communications equipment and the rest of the world.... That has some troubling implications."
Faster than some stranger can tell you about a new refinancing loan, Americans are flocking to the government's do-not-call program. From shortly after midnight Friday to 5 p.m., consumers had registered 735,000 phone numbers.
Even President Bush got in on Friday's announcement, which was made by the FTC in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission. "When Americans are sitting down to dinner, or a parent is reading to his or her child, the last thing they need is a call from a stranger with a sales pitch," he said in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House.
Americans can sign up online (www.donotcall.gov) or by phone (888-382-1222). While the Internet option works nationwide, the toll-free phone number currently operates only west of the Mississippi River (including Minnesota and Louisiana). Beginning July 7, residents in the eastern half of the country will also be able to sign up by phone. The FTC estimates that Americans will register up to 60 million phone numbers in the program's first year. (More information on the program, here.)
The new program will block most but not all telemarketing calls. Exempt groups include politicians, charities, pollsters, and companies with whom a consumer is already doing business.
Even so, the $100 billion-a-year telemarketing industry is bracing for a major downsizing. Besides catalogs, telemarketing represents the biggest segment of the direct-marketing business. And an estimated quarter to half of that business could fall away, says Louis Mastria, director of public and international affairs for the Direct Marketing Association, in New York. That could cost 2 million jobs.
"I think the industry is going to be hurt," he says, "But there are people who have bought and will buy" over the telephone. In the last 12 months, for example, 66 million consumers purchased something because of a telephone call they did not initiate.
But many consumers have grown increasingly irate over the growing intrusiveness of marketing. Unwanted e-mail, known as spam, represents the most obvious example. So much unwanted e-mail, hawking everything from home-refinancing deals to the latest weight-loss method, jams people's in-boxes that, by one estimate, American business loses $11.9 billion a year, mostly through lost employee productivity. Some large Internet providers such as Microsoft, apparently mindful of the nuisance factor for business and ordinary consumers alike, have launched lawsuits against some alleged senders of junk e-mail.
PERHAPS the volume keeps going up because technology has made it so easy and cheap to send out millions of solicitations electronically. Roughly a decade ago, consumers also began receiving many more telephone solicitations. The reason: Automatic dialers allowed sales people to call many more phone numbers and be patched through only where people actually answered the phone.
That's why Americans are signing up for spam eliminators, do-not-call lists (many states and the private sector also sponsor them), and programs that block popup ads on the Internet. The newest one, a test version from Google in Mountain View, Calif., came about because customers requested it, says a company spokeswoman.
The push to erect higher walls of privacy doesn't mean Americans want more privacy than before, says Kerric Harvey, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "They're merely trying to recover ground that has been eroded through the creeping incursion of the technology available." And Americans aren't leading the charge, she adds. "We are way behind our European and our Asian brethren in instituting some of these ways to recover fundamental liberties that have been lost."
Although he supports the new do-not-call program, Mr. Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center sees troubling social implications in the push to build privacy walls. "It's eliminating public participation. The more of these walls you put up, the more likely you are to block a communication you want."
The technology that caused the explosion of direct marketing may also provide the means for corralling it. For example: Mr. Cameron's TeleZapper, which foils automatic dialers, sells for about $40 at Radio Shack and Amazon.com.
"There is an arms race" between consumers and private-sector marketers, says Amitai Etzioni, author of a new book, "My Brother's Keeper." "At the moment, the private sector is gaining."