THE DINNER TABLE – Just as I am explaining to my family why the gold flow affects the NFL playoffs which determine the price of ethanol, the phone rings. It must be someone answering my ad for pit bull bait or perhaps it’s about that missed meeting with my parole officer. “Hello, this is Rachel from Cardholder Services. This is our final call.”
Rachel is one of a growing number of recorded phone messages, called robocalls, I receive. Maybe you, too, are getting an increasing number of such pests, and always at the worse possible time. Didn’t we sign up to keep these annoying interruptions away? Apparently that didn’t work, but now the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, has a plan, simple and relatively cheap – compared to, say, the Louisiana Purchase — to end these calls. If the scheme succeeds, let’s put that federal agency in charge of solving other problems such as the national debt, Oklahoma and Donald Trump.
Specifically, the FTC is offering a bounty on the heads of the offenders: a $50,000 prize for the best technical solution to block illegal commercial robocalls. What’s more, says the FTC, you’ll be a “national hero.” Before you blow that 50K, a bit of background. The Do-Not-Call Law was supposed to go into effect in 2003 but lawsuits (what else?) set it back to 2004. It has been labeled “one of the most popular laws ever enacted by Congress.” Today more than 217 million phone numbers are registered. The shield doesn’t cover every caller, as we have noticed in these past campaigns. Politicians can call, so can pollsters, firms you do business with, not-for-profits and bill collectors. Also, the law only applies to residences, not businesses. Originally, we had to sign up again every five years, but so popular was the law that it was re-written in 2007 and the signups were made permanent.
Still, there has never been a law that some creeps haven’t found a way to circumvent. Last year the FTC received 2-million complaints from Americans who had to get up from the dinner table to hear Rachel or some other harasser make a sales pitch. Not only are the calls cheap for the lawbreakers to make, they are hard to trace. The latest scam is – get this – a call from the “Do-Not-Call Registry.” Only it ain’t. (One of these recordings said, “Press 1 to talk to a representative,” So I pressed 1 and got some human and let him have it about Don’t Call. After my second sentence he hung up.)
Right-wing talk radio hosts and late night comics like to insult and humiliate our federal government workers, but occasionally the feds get things right. How about putting a man on the moon? And remember our bumper sticker: “The Alamo was defended by government employees.” Showing similar ingenuity, the gang at the FTC decided to “tap into the genius and technical expertise among the public” that can turn their talents, time and simple animal cunning to solve any problem. But only for money.
This rewards idea has become a tradition in Washington. The Pentagon is offering a $2 million prize to anyone who can dramatically advance robotics. More sophisticated robots are needed to defuse explosives or clean up nuclear waste. The Rewards for Justice Program at the State Department has paid more than $100 million to more than 60 people with information that “prevented international terrorist attacks or helped bring to justice those involved in prior acts,” its website says. Most of the money has been paid since 9/11. We probably will never know if anyone collected the $25 million bounty on Osama Bin Laden.
Now the feds want our help in solving this robocall problem. Rules: The “robocall challenge” began on Oct. 25 and will close next Jan. 17. The winner will be announced in April. The money will be awarded to the person, team or small company (it must have fewer than 10 employees) that develops the best solution. Updates, examples of recent calls and other info will be provided to any “solvers” who ask. The FTC says a successful entry must work, be easy to use, and be easy to implement and operate. Just remember KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Look, some national hero is going to walk away with a $50,000 check and it might as well be us. So let’s brainstorm. I recommend we simply execute by firing squad the first five robocallers we catch. That would set an example. OK, maybe too tough. We get their phone numbers and call them night and day until we hear them sob, “Stop! I can’t stand it anymore.” Maybe we track down Rachel from Cardholder Services and put her on “Dancing With the Stars” opposite Gov. Chris Christie on snowshoes. A voice recognizer, that’s the ticket. It’s programmed so that any voice that says, “This is not a solicitation, but is your life insurance.…” is answered by checking the caller ID number, a return call and 30 minutes of bagpipe marches. Or just turn the phone over to Joe Biden. Some of these calls are made from off-shore, like the Cayman Islands, which makes it harder for the FTC to track them down. The answer is simple: we get Mitt Romney to buy these operations, lay off the workers and walk away with a million. He knows how to do it.
You techies out there who can actually operate the new Apple iPad mini are no doubt already on the case. Just two rubber bands, a stick of Wrigley’s Doublemint, a corkscrew and – wallah! — as they say in Odessa. Nerds, $50,000 will buy you new faded jeans, Nike sneakers and a month’s supply of Starbuck’s latte. No matter who you are, as you read these very words, someone is in the garage inventing the perfect antidote to this national deluge of junk phone mail. Just remember, Mister or Missus Winner, I get a 15 percent finder’s fee. I’ll be calling – about super time.
Ashby interrupts at firstname.lastname@example.org