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It's hard to give telemarketers the slip

One AT&T customer finds changing his phone number to try to stop telemarketing calls instead raises alerts at a marketing firm that he's a prime target for pitches.

April 10, 2012|David Lazarus

Bill Robbins was having trouble with telemarketers. Even though his number is on the government's Do Not Call list, he was getting about four sales pitches a week.

Exasperated, Robbins contacted his phone company, AT&T, and asked that his number be changed.

"That tells you how irritated I was," he said. "It's a real nuisance to change your number."

Robbins, 82, of Eagle Rock, also specified that he didn't want AT&T sharing his new number with anyone who called the old one, and that he wanted his new number unlisted.

Bottom line: The man wanted to get as far out of reach of telemarketers as he possibly could.

But just three days after the number switch, the phone rang. On the line was a saleswoman for ADT Security Services, who wanted to know whether Robbins was interested in an alarm system.

"I asked how she got my number," he recalled. "She said she had a list of new and changed numbers."

Remember, this was just three days after the change.

"There was only one place they could have gotten my new number, as far as I'm concerned," Robbins said. "It had to be AT&T."

Sure looks like it. But when I contacted the phone giant, Lane Kasselman, a company spokesman, said AT&T would never, ever sell a customer's number or any other info to marketers.

"We do not sell customers' personal information to anyone, for any purpose — period," he said. "AT&T does not sell customer contact information to telemarketers."

Kasselman also pointed me toward AT&T's privacy policy, which states that not only will the company not peddle your info to others but also requires that "non-AT&T companies acting on our behalf" safeguard all such data "in a manner consistent with this policy."

"We do not allow them to use such information for any other purpose," it says.

So I turned to ADT. How did the security company get its hands so quickly on Robbins' new number?

Don't ask us, a company spokesman replied. Ask Budco.

Michigan-based Budco Holdings is a company that, according to its website, "provides fulfillment and direct marketing solutions to some of the world's leading companies."

"We customize your marketing outreach by creating relevant, highly personalized communications for your business, consumer and employee audiences, and deliver it through a targeted, fully integrated multichannel approach," it says.

I called Budco and worked my way through all those multichannels to Ken Palma, the company's vice president of database marketing services.

He confirmed that ADT is a client and said Budco's job is to generate sales leads for people who may be interested in alarm systems. The main focus, Palma said, is finding people who may have just moved into a new home and are thinking about security measures.

New and changed phone numbers are obviously a good indication of such things. Palma said Budco obtains about 80 million such numbers every year.

"We get these numbers every day," he said, "and we turn them around every day" for sales calls. Typically, Palma observed, it takes about three days from the time Budco obtains a new number to a salesperson making a call.

He said Budco usually doesn't receive the numbers directly from a phone company like AT&T or Verizon. Instead, it gets them from the companies that AT&T and Verizon use to handle their directory-assistance services. Palma declined to name the companies.

AT&T announced Monday that it's selling a majority stake in its Yellow Pages division to Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity heavyweight.

Does Budco pay these other companies for people's numbers?

"It costs me money to acquire that information," Palma answered.

From a purely business perspective, this is all very impressive. You ask the phone company for a new number and the change is made right away. The directory-assistance company is notified that same day, and it promptly passes along the number to the marketing company. Within a few days, you're receiving a sales call.

From a privacy standpoint, of course, this stinks.

AT&T is correct when it says it doesn't hawk people's info to marketers, but that's clearly a technical distinction. Its business partner is doing all the dirty work.

Verizon says in its own privacy policy that it too would never even consider selling a customer's data to others. It also says that business partners must "protect the customer information we may provide to them and limit their use of Verizon customer data to the purposes for which it was provided."

Clearly, then, there's a big, fat flaw in the system somewhere if a company like Budco is able to get its hands on 80 million numbers a year.

AT&T's Kasselman said phone companies are required by law to provide numbers to directory publishers, so you can't hold the phone company accountable for what the directory company might subsequently do.

But he said that "our contracts with third-party directory publishers grant them a license only for the purpose of publishing directories, and although we are limited in controlling directory data once it's public, any such disclosure of listing information for purposes other than directory listings would be a violation of our contract."

Kasselman added that if you tell AT&T you want an unlisted number, it won't share your info with anyone. In AT&T's case, that will only cost you $1.25 a month. In Verizon's, up to $3.50 monthly.

I conveyed all this to Robbins and he pointed out that he had asked AT&T for an unlisted number, and that didn't do much good.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is all AT&T's responsibility," he said. "You'd think there would be some law to stop this."

You would, wouldn't you?

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He can also be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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