You've probably seen the electronic billboards along the Beltway asking commuters to report suspicious activity, specifically possible terrorists at work.
Consumer tips aren't quite that urgent. Customer-service alerts aren't usually level orange. But don't underestimate their value -- the kind of hard-earned guidance one consumer can give another. I don't. So consider this column your electronic billboard for reports of suspicious activity in the marketplace. Here you can tip off other consumers about what worked for you, what didn't. Warn them about scammers and schemes. Gripe about companies not playing fair.
Here's a tip from Bethesda reader Andy Gefen: Recently, when he answered his ringing cell phone, he heard the distinctly shrill and unpleasant b-e-e-e-e-p of a fax transmission in search of a fax machine. Wrong number, no big deal, he figured. Until 15 minutes later, when he got another fax call from the same number. B-e-e-e-p! And then, another, and another, every 15 minutes, for nearly two hours.
Gefen didn't recognize the number. But he knew that, besides being annoying, the faxes were illegal. Federal regulations prohibit businesses from faxing unsolicited advertisements to your cell phone -- or, for that matter, your home fax machine.
But cell phone fax interruptus is not as uncommon as you may think. All it takes is for your cell phone to accidentally wind up on a commercial faxer's calling list. Walter "Bud" Heitman has been battling a barrage of these calls ever since he bought his cell phone a year ago. "I have tried returning the call to the number listed in my phone's memory," he says, "but the response is always the same -- 'mailbox full.' "
Gefen's tip: Jot down the fiendish faxer's number. Then key it into Google's search engine online. When he did, "the same number came up on some Web complaint sites" in posts of similar stories identifying the Florida company at fault, says Gefen. He even found a phone number for the company.
Gefen called the offending firm and demanded that the faxes stop immediately and that his number be removed from the company's fax-marketing list. The fax calls continued to his cell phone. B-e-e-e-p! By his third call, "I was pretty [darn] angry," says Gefen. And he let the company know it in so many words. The faxes finally stopped.
Try a Google search of the 905-370-0090 number generating the fax calls to Heitman's cell phone, and you find that the faxer is a company called VisionLab. Junk-fax expert Steven T. Kirsch, founder of Junkfax.org, a consumer-friendly, anti-junkfax Web site, calls VisionLab "the world's most notorious junk faxer." The Federal Communications Commission cited VisionLab last year for illegal fax transmissions.
The lesson, says Gefen, is that online search engines such as Google can be the first step in solving some consumer riddles.
Your Privacy Googled
Speaking of Google, here's another tip: If privacy is one of your concerns, one easy, proactive step that takes only minutes to check is whether you're listed in Google's "PhoneBook" -- its reverse look-up feature that finds people's names and other information from their phone numbers.
Just go to Google (www.google.com), key in your home-phone area code and number using hyphens, and click "search." If you're listed, it will bring up your name, address and phone number -- along with links to Google Maps, MapQuest and Yahoo Maps that, when clicked, provide street maps and driving directions to your front door.
Uncomfortable with that? Google offers privacy-minded folks an opt-out option that most other online reverse directories don't. To opt out, click on the tiny telephone icon next to your PhoneBook listing. That connects to PhoneBook instructions -- including a link near the end for removing residential or business phone numbers and addresses. Follow that link to an online form, fill it out and submit. Google says that it will confirm when it receives your removal request and that the process should take a couple of days. Check back in a couple of weeks to make sure your information is gone.
Back by Popular Demand
One of the most frequent questions readers ask is: "How do you stop junk mail and catalogues?" It's indicative of the landslide of unwanted advertising inside our mailboxes. From time to time, it's useful to repeat the tip on how to slow the flow.
The Direct Marketing Association offers its services in removing your name and address from the lists of the corporations and bulk commercial mailers littering your mailbox with advertising -- though that's not quite how the trade association for thousands of such companies would put it.
To opt out by mail and at no cost, send a postcard or letter containing your name, address and signature to: Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, N.Y., 10512. To register online at the DMA's Web site costs $5. Either way, you remain on the DMA's do-not-mail preference file for five years and then must re-register. Typically it takes about three months for the junk mail to dwindle. But the junk mail never stops completely.
Got questions or comments? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to email@example.com or 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.