Jim Winter, a north Scottsdale retiree, had a problem that many Valley residents can sympathize with — he was constantly receiving “junk mail” from an auto dealership.
So Winter called the dealer in hopes of being removed from their mailing list. He called the business 800 number, but it was after 6 p.m., and all he heard was a recorded message. He just hung up the telephone without saying anything, intending to call again the next day.
He was shocked the next morning when he received a call from the dealer asking if he wanted to buy a car. He was shocked because he had requested a free blocking service from his phone company that he thought prevented his number from being displayed on caller identification equipment. After talking with the customer service representative, he learned that not only his phone number but also his name, address and ZIP code appeared at the other end of the line. When Winter complained to his local phone company, Qwest Communications International, he was told they could do nothing about it.
“They said I can cancel my phone service or put up with it,” he said. “That was not the intent of the law when the government stepped in and said they had to give customers free line blocking.”
What Winter learned to his chagrin is the little-known fact that line or number blocking as it's called, intended to protect privacy, doesn't work for 800, 900 or similar types of numbers for which a customer, usually a business, pays an extra charge. The reasoning is that the business is entitled to get the full value of what they pay for, including knowledge of who is calling them, said Qwest spokesman Jeff Mirasola. To Winter, that's potentially dangerous. For example, he said a woman separated from an abusive ex-husband could unknowingly call him at a business 800 number, and her telephone number and address would become known to him even if she had line blocking.
“I think the general public should be aware of this,” he said. “They're keeping this a big secret.”
Heather Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, said Qwest was required to inform customers about Caller ID and blocking and what they could and could not do at the time the services were introduced more than 10 years ago. She said the commission would want that disclosure to continue today, but she was not aware of the policies of individual phone companies. Della Berg, director of product management for Cox Communications, which provides local telephone service, does not proactively tell customers that blocking doesn't work for 800 numbers. But she added that she was not aware of any complaints.
“In all my years of working in the phone business, this has never come up before,” she said. “If someone asked about it, we would certainly tell them.”
Consumer advocates have mixed views on the issue. Phyllis Rowe, president emeritus of the Arizona Consumers Council, said she understands why businesses want the information — it allows call center operators to help customers more quickly.
“But I don't like it,” she said. “It saves the businesses some money, but it reduces your privacy.”
Corporation Commission chairman Mark Spitzer sees little reason to change the policy, saying telephone users who pay for a service should take priority over those receiving free services. The same logic applies to customers who pay for Caller ID, he said. To the extent that other consumers request free blocking to prevent their name and number from being transmitted, that undermines the usefulness of a service the Caller ID customers are paying for, he said. Spitzer said, however, he doesn't favor doing away with blocking entirely because some callers have legitimate safety reasons for not wanting their information passed along.