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CONSUMER WATCH

Some failures in communications

You needn't give up personal data to get off junk mailing lists, but good luck stopping those unwanted faxes.

August 12, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Never, ever give your Social Security number to someone you don't know.

Except that's what the Consumer Watch column inadvertently directed folks to do in the July 22 article on curbing junk mail.

Several readers sent frantic messages about a government-mandated help line, mentioned in the column, that was supposed to get people removed from mailing lists for "preapproved" credit card and insurance offers.

But the call-in number leads to a rather spooky electronic service that asks for a Social Security number and birth date -- the very sort of information everyone has been warned not to give strangers in this era of identity theft.

The other hot topic in reaction to the column: junk faxes. Readers are clamoring for a way to stop them.

Well, there's good news on the "preapproved" front. Although it's not apparent, there are a couple of ways you can complete the process without giving your Social Security number.

As for the incredibly bothersome faxes, the news is not as promising, but steps can be taken.

First, a look at the mail solicitations. If you've been getting a lot of these types of offers saying that you have been preapproved or pre-qualified for credit cards or insurance policies, you could take it as a compliment. It probably means you're on credit agencies' firm-offer lists because you have a relatively good credit history.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the agencies to have a way for a consumer to get off the lists. That's where the call-in service comes in.

The phone number set up by the agencies for this purpose -- (888) 567-8688 -- leads to a recorded message that quickly establishes ground rules.

"A live agent is not available through this number," the cheerful, female voice says.

Then comes the spooky part. You're asked to give your home telephone number and after a brief pause a computer voice reads back your name and address for verification purposes. You get the feeling that the little voice knows all about you.

Then it asks for your Social Security number.

"I ended the call," said David Peevers, a Los Angeles writer. He didn't like the idea of giving the information to a "robot."

The phone service is legit, privacy advocates say, though hardly sensitive to worries about personal information.

"We've done a great job of terrifying people about giving out the Social Security numbers," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "Then they get this electronic droid asking them to do just that."

Experian, one of the credit reporting firms that sponsors the phone service, acknowledged that it had gotten complaints. But spokesman Rod Griffin said that obtaining a Social Security number was key to verifying a person's identification.

"We have about 220 million credit histories," he said. "It helps make sure we get a match to the right one."

But it's not mandatory that you give the number.

Here's a simple way to get around it: Shut up.

Although the electronic voice does not tell you beforehand, if you stay silent instead of giving your number, the system will ask for it again. Stay silent a second time and it will give up and move on to other questions.

Silence truly is golden.

Alternatively, you can go to the website www.optoutpre screen.com, which is the online version of the phone service.

The online form asks for the Social Security number as well as other information, but the only boxes marked "required" are for a first and last name.

Now, on to junk faxes. The Federal Communications Commission has had rules on the books against unsolicited faxes since 1992.

But the current law -- which requires the sender of a fax to have an "established business relationship" with a recipient -- is disregarded about as often as the speed limit on the Santa Monica Freeway.

Over a recent weekend, just one of the fax machines in The Times' Business department received seven unsolicited faxes offering vacations, stock tips, mortgages, a vending machine service and discount prescription drugs "without a prescription."

Retired aeronautical engineer Arvel Witte of Rolling Hills wrote that he had received not only faxes for life insurance and shirts but also one that offered the chance to get into fax advertising himself.

Sometimes, the faxes go beyond annoying.

"We heard from a person who got a fax saying he had won a $1.5-million prize in a lottery," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "He was told to send, as proof of identity, a copy of his passport.

"It was an identity theft scam."

Even if not a scam, unsolicited faxes cost the recipient. Barbara Neuberg of Los Angeles noted that the junk faxes "use up my toner and paper needlessly."

Putting a fax telephone number on the national Do Not Call Registry doesn't help. The registry bans unsolicited voice calls but has no effect on faxes.

Sales faxes, even if from a company known to the recipient, are supposed to include a phone number or e-mail address that can be used to cut off future faxes.

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