You Have the Right to Remain on the Line: Reverse Prankology for Cold Callers

With the furor over the “Do Not Call List” not even close to subsiding, it is the firm belief of this lone Commentary writer that all of America has quite simply lost its sense of humor. Why allow frustration to get the best of you when interrupted in the middle of dinner by a rude cold caller offering to arrange a second mortgage for you, when instead you could turn the tables on him and make him feel stupid? Perhaps one of my fondest memories of my childhood took place in my father’s office one day when I was approximately six. A telemarketer had called my dad and was trying to sell him some sort of agricultural futures. Obviously not interested, my dad told me to sing my ABC’s on the phone. I did so, over the shouted offers of this total stranger to call back later. When I finally reached “Z,” my dad told me that I had done well and that I would get a prize if I sang the alphabet again, but in Hebrew. By the time I had reached the letter “Eiyan,” the fellow on the line had hung up, which I, not really understanding what was going on, thought was very rude. Little did I know that I had just turned the tables on perhaps one of America’s most hated institutions. The issue of the “Do Not Call List” is essentially a First Amendment question: does a random person have the right to call you unsolicited? I happen to believe that, yes, he does. This may strike most people as a definite negative, but why not turn it into a positive? I have therefore made what I call the Will Scharf List of Reverse Prankology. 1. If someone calls to sell you something, don’t hang up and get all grumpy. Have a little fun at his expense. Offer to sell him something back! This does not have to be particularly elaborate, and requires little previous thought. When somebody interrupts dinner to offer a home mortgage, offer him a car loan and be as obnoxious about it as possible. Do not let your new friend off the phone for as long as you can string out the conversation. 2. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can bypass #1 and pull out the big guns. Tell your new best friend that you are a member of a commune that has rejected money in favor of a system of barter. Tell him that you cannot pay him for the goods or services he has to offer, but that you’d be more than happy to give him some of the organic agricultural products you grow in your expansive backyard. If you’re really on your game, you can even try recruiting your salesperson to your supposed commune, quoting (or pretending to quote) the works of Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Morpheus from the Matrix, etc. 3. Peter Whalen ’04 provided me with possibly the most obvious of all solutions: Sound extremely interested for about a minute, and them simply set the phone down. If you time it well, your cold caller will not notice for possibly even a few minutes, wasting his time and costing you nothing. 4. Perhaps the most annoying brand of these unwanted callers is religious proselytizers: Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular come to mind. For many years, my family was the target of a concerted effort by the local Jews For Jesus office. We hung up on more calls than could ever be counted, turned away the persistent solicitors from our door, etc. Finally, we decided to have a little fun. When the office next called us, we stated simply that the Scharfs had moved out, and that we were a family of Mormons from Provo, Utah. When they would try to convert us, we would just try and “convert” them right back. They did not believe us at first, but a few choice quotes from the Book of Mormon provided all the religious fire that we needed to fight fire with fire. Eventually the Jews For Jesus people, or “Messianic Jews,” as they prefer to be called, stopped calling us. Perhaps they were just moving onto a new target, perhaps we had finally gotten to them, or perhaps they actually believed that we were Mormons, but the fact remains that we won, and had a jolly good time doing it. 5. In England, perhaps the most infamous of all cold calling companies is British Telecom, or BT. My cousin Arthur long ago came up with the best way to deter BT cold callers. Whenever he gets a call, Arthur starts speaking about a BT phone that electrocuted him randomly one day, temporarily disabled him from the waist down, and forced him to miss days of work. Arthur then asks the caller for the location of BT’s corporate headquarters so that he knows where to have the court summons sent for a hypothetical lawsuit, apparently only weeks away. Normally, one of two things happens: either the caller gets cold feet and hangs up, or the caller passes Arthur off to customer service. If he gets through to customer service, then Arthur asks the operator why they have been connected. Arthur says that he was about to buy a new set of phones from the sales rep who had called him, but that he had been randomly and suddenly transferred to customer service. Usually, Arthur is connected to a new sales rep., to whom he repeats the electrocution story ad infinitum. I’ve seen the kid keep BT on the phone for over an hour on one occasion. Perhaps Brits are just slow on the uptake, but perhaps this could be adapted to ATT/Sprint/MCI callers. This requires some more thought. It is my sincere hope that by now you have some idea of how little a life I have. Yet, at the same time, I hope that you have now learned to live your life by the powerful maxim: don’t get angry, get even.