Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

For Whom the Ringtone Tolls

(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On a lovely late-summer Saturday morning I was about to begin the familiar routine of eating a waffle and then losing interest in eating a waffle, when the phone rang. Didn’t recognize the number. Glared at the unfamiliar digits, bile rising. Can’t I just eat my waffle without a scambot telling me the IRS is en route to arrest me unless I send them $400 in prepaid Visa cards?

I did something uncharacteristic: I answered it. My waffle mood had been sullied by this intrusion, and if I was lucky I’d get a live human scammer, whose day I could ruin. String him along, waste his time, then tell him he was a horrible person who deserved to be consumed by a carnivorous plant that kept him alive so it could feed off his screams as he slowly dissolved in its gastric bath. 

I have a script in my head, and it varies according to how many calls I get in the day. It gets more ornate the more calls I get.

“When the hard teeth of the pitiless pod close around your body, you will beg for death that does not come. Not even madness will shield you from the pain. A thousand regrets, each with the nameless visage of the people you disturbed, will pass in silence, regarding your plight without pity. Do you understand?”

It’s a good thing I didn’t say this on the morning of wafflus interruptus, because the caller was a nice young woman from Target confirming an optical appointment. At the end of the call she said something that sums up exactly where we are today:

“Thank you for answering the phone. No one does anymore.”

She’s right. We have girdled the globe with wires that carry our voices across the land and under the waters, a miraculous technological achievement, and it’s all gone to hell. Where the ring of the phone once commanded our attention like the king’s herald showing up outside your cottage and blowing a golden horn, it’s now the equivalent of a fly in your room buzzing against the screen. 

But! Good news! The FTC is on it! Again. 

Every other month you read a piece about the FTC devising new regulations to prevent telemarketing scam calls, and it’s never what you want to hear. 

What they say: “We are working with the telecoms to develop a robust database and protocols that will deal with VOIP spoofing.” Half the people who hear it think Voip Spoofing is a Dutchman who makes the calls. Do you know where Mijnheer Spoofing lives? Can’t you arrest him? 

What we want to hear: “At dawn today a volley of Tomahawk missiles destroyed the call centers in several cities. The offices were unoccupied, except for upper management. We called them several times to warn them to leave, but apparently they thought it was a robocall and let it go to voicemail, so that’s on them.”

From a Wall Street Journal article on the coming crackdown:

“Some in the industry are considering the possibility of creating a public list of problem firms, in part as a warning to other telecom carriers considering whether to accept traffic from those companies in the future.”

Try using similar weasel words the next time your spouse asks you to take out the garbage.

“Sure, right on it, although part of me is considering the possibility of creating a space tomorrow for doing that, in part as a warning to neighbors considering whether coordinated garbage relocation might be arranged in the future.”

(Hard spouse stare.)

“Okay, taking it out now.”

My phone provider supplies an app that screens calls. They come up on my phone as telemarketer, which is like your investment counselor passing along mail stamped Ponzi. Hey, dude, FYI, whatever. If you know it’s a telemarketer, why don’t you block it? Can’t you send a surge of electricity down the wire that fries their computers and blows the caller’s toenails out of his shoes and embeds them in the drywall, smoking? Do you realize that no one talks on the phone anymore and we do all our communications by texting, like Winston Smith writing in his diary out of the sight of Big Brother’s telescreen?

You know the political class is insulated from this scourge. If everyone in Congress got 20 calls a day from Judy at Card Services, the voice actress who made the recording would be in a pillory on the National Mall. You’d see fast action on the robocaller menace if everyone in the media got 20 reelect-Trump calls a day. You’d see stories that decried the trauma people experienced when White Supremacy showed up on their lock screen over and over. The Dems would push for new laws:

Elizabeth Warren: “No one should be disturbed by unwanted, fraudulent, racist smoke signals.”

Bernie Sanders: “I gotta tell you, if a dozen pigeons with ads strapped on their legs landed on my roof I’d do something about it, and so should we, I was in Russia once and the phone never rang.”

Joe Biden: “When I was vice president we passed the first comprehensive phone law, about the phones, and Barack said, you know, he used to say, ‘Joe, your fly’s open,’ and you know ‘fly’ in African-American slang means ‘good.’ But we need to build on that.”

And so on. Nothing will change. It was, perhaps, inevitable. The first words spoken over the phone were “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you” — but what history books don’t record is the rest of the sentence. 

“. . . to consider the advantage of these low rates on auto insurance.” Bell, in so many ways, was a visionary. 

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