- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

Telemarketers and e-mail solicitors inspire a unique combination of frustration and rage in their targets. Now these modern-age salesmen are inspiring companies to create products to drown out the unsolicited sales pitches.

On the telephone front, gadgets such as the TeleZapper promise to greatly reduce the number of times dinnertime is interrupted by the phone.

From the Web perspective, computer users can tinker with their e-mail systems or install software packages to stem the tide of salacious, deceptive or just annoying e-mails flooding their "in" boxes.

No one device or program can block all of the unwanted messages from reaching Americans' homes, but each appears able at least to slow the glut of sales pitches to a more manageable level.

Perhaps the highest-profile weapon to fight back against intrusive telemarketers is the TeleZapper, created by Privacy Technologies in Cleveland.

Charlene Brandt, Privacy Technologies' manager of marketing communications, says the bulk of telemarketing calls are initiated by computers seeking out live, connected phone lines.

"It works on all the phone extensions on the same line," Mrs. Brandt says.

The TeleZapper, which plugs into a person's phone, can recognize a computer-generated call and emits a brief tone whenever such a call is answered. That tone tricks the telemarketing computers into thinking the line has been disconnected. The tone used is the same as the first of three tones callers hear when they reach a disconnected line, Mrs. Brandt says.

When the phone's owner picks up the receiver, the tone sounds regardless of who is on the line, but if the call is computer-generated, only silence follows the tone. Before long, the number of computer-generated calls decreases.

The device retails for $49.95.

Though the company wouldn't reveal sales projections for 2002, it reported $21.9 million in sales for 2001. The device went on the market last August.

Another tool homeowners can use to keep telemarketers at bay is the newly renamed ScreenMachine. The device, formerly known as the PreFone Filter, screens incoming calls before the phone ever rings.

Jan Thomas, spokeswoman for Spectrum Research, the Sarasota, Fla., the company that makes the unit, says incoming callers hear a message stating that telemarketing calls are not welcome and that the person's number should be put on a "do not call" list. Friends and family, however, may press 5 to reach the intended person.

The process, Ms. Thomas says, takes less than 12 seconds.

"[The computer] will assume it's an answering machine and simply hang up," Ms. Thomas says. "After they've failed to reach a number after a certain number of times, they drop [the phone number] from the list."

On future calls, friends can press 5 without having to hear the entire message.

If a telemarketer has the temerity to press 5, he or she is in violation of Federal Trade Commission rules, Ms. Thomas says. The Direct Marketing Association, based in New York, says a telemarketer will incur a $500 fine for contacting someone who has requested that his or her name be put on a company's "do not call" list.

That's in accordance with the Telemarketing Sales Rule, a regulation enacted during the mid-'90s to protect consumers from telemarketers. The DMA assists businesses interested in interactive and database marketing while making sure such companies behave in a legal and professional manner.

Both the FTC and state attorneys general can enforce the TSR in federal court. As of January, the TSR had rung up judgments of more than $152 million in consumer redress and $500,000 in civil penalties.

The ScreenMachine costs $59.95 and can be found at Sharper Image outlets and, soon, at Target stores.

A Fort Myers, Fla., company, Morgan-Francis, produces a third gadget to thwart phone solicitors. Its Phone Butler system can be engaged when a person first hears a telemarketing pitch. The $29.95 device emits a prerecorded message warning the telemarketer to stop the pitch and take the homeowner's name off its potential client list.

•••

Spam, the name for unrequested e-mail solicitations, is a much newer nuisance but has quickly made itself known as an online irritant.

According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, spam got its name from a Monty Python skit in which a group of vikings chants "Spam, spam spam " louder and louder to drown out neighboring dialogue.

The cacophony of seedy sales pitches is a clear irritant to computer users everywhere.

A 2001 survey by Market Facts, a marketing research firm, reports 74.9 percent of respondents said they were concerned about spam messages promising to lower mortgage rates or increase libido and making other dubious claims.

Unfortunately, enough people are responding to the electronic schemes to keep them profitable.

According to a recent survey by the Gartner Group, a marketing-research firm, spam mail enjoys a 1 percent response rate, similar to direct postal mail campaigns. Online campaigns cost much less than their "snail mail" counterparts. Postal mail campaigns are 100 times more expensive to produce than electronic campaigns.

Brightmail, a San Francisco company that analyzes and filters out spam, says June saw more than 4.8 million "spam attacks," an increase from June 2001's 880,000 attacks. Each attack can include thousands of individual spam messages.

"The sheer volume of spam has been increasing astronomically in the last six to 12 months," says Bryson Gordon, product-line manager with McAfee.com of Sunnyvale, Calif., which specializes in Internet security.

McAfee produces and recently released SpamKiller software ($39.95) to deal with the rising number of e-mails, some of which have sinister purposes.

"Spam is transitioning from being a mere annoyance to a security threat," Mr. Gordon says.

One way spam can threaten computer users is by capturing their personal information through false claims and links, Mr. Gordon says.

A spam message can mimic the look of a respected retail chain offering extremely low prices on a variety of goods. Users, eager to catch the sales, follow a link to a site that resembles the retail outlet's home page but exists simply to capture unsuspecting people's credit-card information.

SpamKiller runs quietly in the background and acts as a "quarantine area" for spam mail, he says. Incorrectly blocked e-mails can be retrieved from the quarantined area, where they remain available for up to 30 days.

Among the software's features is the ability to filter out incoming messages by text in the message, the subject line even the country code at the end of some messages. Many spammers use foreign-based Internet service providers (ISPs) to launch their spam attacks.

Users can have the software block spam or send out an automated formal complaint to the ISP's abuse desk whenever it receives spam.

"A lot of users are looking for active ways to fight back against spammers," he says.

Another option is to set the software so that whenever a spam mailing arrives, it is bounced back to the sender. If the sender sees the address isn't operational, it may remove the address from its lists.

The company tested the bounce-back method internally for three months and found an 80 percent reduction in spam mail at the end of the trial, he says.

Other software options include ChoiceMail from DigiPortal Software Inc. The $29.95 program prevents any e-mail from reaching a person's "in" box unless it is from a source previously approved.

Mark Ellwood, a Toronto productivity expert and author of the book "Cut the Glut of E-mail," says filtering out e-mail based on its content can be tricky.

"You can screen out [the word] 'free,' but when your buddy calls you up with free tickets to tonight's game " he says.

Mr. Ellwood advises Web surfers not to fall for any "free" sales pitches. "It's people collecting your name," he says. "It's providing marketers information about you"

Some e-mail services offer a modicum of filtering help as part of their services.

MSN Hotmail, a free provider of e-mail for more than 110 million Internet users, lets subscribers reject e-mail from a specific sender as well as from an entire domain the name following the @ sign.

The service also can direct e-mail featuring specific words in various parts of the e-mail, such as the subject header, into various trash folders.

The company also works with the Mail Abuse Prevention System, or MAPS, a Redwood City, Calif., nonprofit that works with Internet users and commercial companies to fight spam. It manages a constantly updated list of known spammers and shares the information with various Internet mail services.

Sally Strackbein, a Herndon business consultant who specializes in technology, sounds a disconcerting note about the war on spam.

"The reason the spammers do what they do [is that] people actually buy from them. As long as people buy from them, the spamming will go on," Mrs. Strackbein says.

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