Talking Back To the Junk Fax

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2005

All righty then, enough pleading! As promised, here are some solutions for desperate fax machine owners who are sick and tired of screeching junk-fax transmissions in the middle of the night, junk faxes bogarting their machines during work hours, and junk faxes using their printer ink and paper to deliver unsolicited, unwanted, cheesy advertisements.

For many home fax machine owners, the junk-fax pandemic has grown into an annoyance equivalent to telemarketing at its worst -- before the National Do Not Call Registry struck a blow for privacy and sanity. These dastardly faxed commercials typically break federal law. Like spammers, junk-faxers broadcast the same message to millions of fax machine numbers at once. And more often than not, the faxes promote scams not worth the paper they're printed on.

Early last month, the Consummate Consumer was inundated with complaints about junk faxes following the junk-fax column ("Your Machine Is Spewing Again," Sept. 25) and asked readers to share solutions for stopping the menace -- short of hammering the fax machine with a Louisville Slugger. The result? Good news, sufferers! Solutions R Us! The best of them:

Several former junk-fax victims favored outsmarting the faxers. Springfield reader Rob Scott said he'd arrive each morning at his office to piles of junk faxes from a D.C. association. He called the association twice, asking that the faxes stop.

When they didn't, he says, "I sent an invoice to the executive director for the cost of a toner cartridge -- about $64." The director called a week later asking if he were serious. Scott told her he was. She promised to stop. "We never got another fax from that association," he says.

Leila Leoncavallo fooled the faxers. Overwhelmed with junk faxes from a Canadian phone number, the Fairfax reader downloaded the standard SIT telephone tones from and recorded them at the beginning of her answering-machine message. The three-tone sound is phone code for "this phone's disconnected." Computer-generated faxing systems hear the tone and automatically strike the number from the list. After 10 days using the SIT tones tactic, Leoncavallo hadn't received a single fax. "I'm not sure if it's the tone or just a coincidence," she says.

Jennifer Tyler prefers outright revenge. "I like to beat them at their own game, mainly using up expensive toner and paper," says the Germantown reader. "I work from home and buy my own supplies, so junk-faxers particularly anger me."

When Tyler receives a junk fax, she takes a piece of black paper, puts it in her fax machine and dials the "fax replies to" number or the transmission fax number on the junk fax. Before transmitting, she tapes the ends of the paper together to make a loop. "Your very dark fax will be sent on an endless loop until someone at the other end realizes what's happening and interrupts the transmission," she says. "This may not get you removed from the list but it sure makes you feel a lot better! And I've never had a repeat junk fax after I've used this trick."

Fighting technology with technology, several readers swear by devices that route calls, block uninvited calls, detour calls or require incoming calls to key in a code. Steve Kane recommends checking out Command Communications Inc. and Digitone Communications Inc. for tele-guarding products. Digitone's "PrivacyCall Screener," for instance, is a sleek, $100 box that blocks certain caller numbers and requires unidentified callers to enter a privacy code to make your phone ring. It eliminates not only junk faxes but also telemarketers, political pollsters, charities, stalkers, creditors -- even ex-spouses, according to Digitone's promotions.

Cabin John reader Fred Mopsik uses "Call Intercept," a $5-a-month service Verizon offers. Working with caller ID, it prompts unidentified callers to say who they are and alerts the consumer with a distinct ring that he's got a "Call Intercept" call, plays a recording of the caller identifying himself, and gives options for handling the call. Callers who refuse to identify themselves are disconnected. "The junk faxes never make it past the first step, and the phone doesn't even ring," he says.

Alan Trachtenberg e-mailed that if wasting toner and paper is the main offense, "just don't print the junk faxes."

How to do that? The North Bethesda public health physician prescribes directing all incoming faxes to your computer via a fax-modem card and fax program. "You use your computer screen to review what you've received over your fax-modem," says Trachtenberg, adding that some fax utilities prevent fax calls from ringing, show on-screen icons for incoming faxes, list faxer numbers, and let you peek at the first page to determine whether to print it.

And the junk faxes? Just say no and delete 'em. One downside is that to send a fax, you'll need a fax machine, a printer with a built-in fax, or a scanner to scan documents into a file. "The point is to direct your faxes to electronic storage," says Trachtenberg, "save or erase most of them, print out the ones you need, and save the trees."

Some enemies of junk faxes take the bureaucratic route. Herndon reader Sarah Snyder e-mailed that she saves stacks of junk faxes at her office and mails them to the Federal Communications Commission (c/o TCPA Complaint) with a cover letter asking for help stopping them. "Perhaps there is no link between my sending in regular complaints and the noticeable slow-down in junk faxes," she says, "but the faxes have dramatically declined and I couldn't be happier about that!"

Mark Estren would chalk that up to coincidence. "The FCC's effectiveness in fighting the flood is, to put it mildly, modest at best," says Estren, who writes music criticism for The Washington Post and consumer-business articles for the Bottom Line newsletters. He recommends consumers find help at , a site with information on how to fight back.

The FCC collects junk-fax data but rarely takes action to help individuals, he says. "Congress is worse, having passed a bill last June with the phony title of 'Junk Fax Prevention Act' that actually makes it easier for companies to send this garbage."

And the law requiring faxers to provide toll-free, opt-out numbers on faxes? Jerome Martin, who owns Mar-Cal Construction Co. in Smithsburg, Md., says he has a two-inch-thick folder of junk faxes whose toll-free numbers he has called. "All to no avail," he says, adding a last-word message for Congress. "The most practical solution would be legislation with some teeth that prohibited these vultures from preying on my poor innocent fax machine."

Resolved That . . .

What do consumers want? Readers with ideas of what companies, customer-service representatives, retailers -- the whole marketplace out there -- should list on their New Year's resolutions for 2006 can e-mail or send then to the postal address below.

Got questions or comments? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details toconsumer@washpost.comor write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Because of the volume of mail, personal replies are not always possible.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company