Dinner is burning in the kitchen when the phone rings. You drop everything to answer it and find yourself listening to a sales pitch -- not even a person talking to you but a tape recording, yammering away.
Sizing up the situation, you respond by: hanging up immediately; letting loose with a few obscenities and then hanging up the phone; or leaving a trick name and address (maybe Ronald Reagan, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) when the recording asks for your name and address. Or perhaps you are interested and leave your real name to receive more information about the offer.
Even if you hang up before the recording is finished, it may tie up your phone until it does finish, all because this is the bold new world of telemarketing.
"This is a growing market," said Silver Spring entrepreneur Wendell Hill, 31, who has been involved with recorded telephone sales work since February. "The computer can't close a sale like a person can, but it can provide more leads because it keeps going. It can dial faster than a person. It can work 12 hours a day. And it doesn't get flustered when a customer hangs up or uses obscenities."
While telecomputer promoters like Hill envision a rosy future of machines used to painlessly expand business, many consumers complain that their privacy is being invaded by the increasing number of recorded telephone solicitations. Consumers say their phone lines are being tied up unnecessarily and some say they just don't like being interrupted and treated to an advertising spiel while they are relaxing at home.
In some parts of the country, the telecomputer equipment has even been used by people who record messages promising free gifts and then ask for the person's name, address and credit card number. That practice has not been reported in the Washington area, but the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs has issued an alert telling consumers never to give out their credit card numbers to telephone solicitors.
In Washington, there are no restrictions on the way that solicitors can use automated dialing systems with prerecorded messages. Virginia allows them as long as the recording equipment disconnects when the person who has received the call hangs up their telephone. Maryland prohibits solicitors from using these systems. Anyone convicted of a violation can be fined up to $1,000 per offense and up to $5,000 for each additional offense.
No one has ever been convicted of violating that law, and consumer officials acknowledge that the law contains loopholes that make it possible for solicitors to use the machines legally. Law enforcement officials would also have difficulty reaching solicitors who call into Maryland from other jurisdictions.
So the calls go on.
Hill said that he knows of at least three telecomputers used in this area and adds there may be as many as 20.
Each machine is able to dial 500 to 1,000 telephone calls a day. Of that number, the machine will net only about 12 to 36 leads on customers seriously interested in follow-up contact, Hill said. Only 4 to 12 of those people buy the service or product.
While the recorded solicitation may entice a few customers, it apparently alienates many others.
Pat Bailer is a Silver Spring resident who received "a number of these calls over the summer and it really annoyed me." One call came in late September as she was rushed about her kitchen, preparing a roast beef dinner.
"I picked up the phone and this thing started saying something like 'I am Hal the Computer and I am going to offer you a way to save money; if you aren't interested, hang up but if you are, give us your name and phone number.' "
Bailer hung up, but when she tried to complain to the Maryland Public Service Commission, she was told that she would have to know the company's name before her complaint could be investigated. The second time Bailer received a call from "Hal," she left her name and phone number. She then got the name of the company and its phone number when the business contacted her.
Hal, as it turned out, was programed to drum up business for Wendell Hill's company, Unicall, which sells long-distance telephone service.
Other solicitations made by the telecomputers in recent days involved one selling lightbulbs, with the proceeds going to a handicapped group. Another asked for contributions to send ministers to college.
None of the telecomputer pitches are coming from major marketers.
"No major marketer is using them because there is such a low level of consumer acceptance and such a high level of consumer alienation," said Fred Tregaskis, a telephone marketer who serves on the telephone marketing council of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), a trade organization.
At present the council is working on a position paper for DMA on telephone marketing with recorded messages.
Tregaskis is based in Chattanooga, Tenn. and directs marketing services for Olan Mills Inc., a national chain of portrait studios. Tregaskis said the telecomputers "are sold to small independent entrepreneurs who don't care or who are unaware of the ethics involved and of the consumer reaction. They just program it to dial a list of numbers and if they find a few leads at the end of the day, they are that much ahead."
But some major marketers, like Sears, Roebuck and Company, do use the telecomputers for notification, he said. That practice has been widely accepted by customers. A Sears customer who orders merchandise from the catalogue, for example, may receive a telephone call from the computer announcing that the package has arrived.
Some schools have begun to use telecomputers, nicknamed "Big Mouth" by students, to notify parents when their children are absent from school.
D.C. officials are now shopping for a computer system that will enable schools to keep parents posted on absenteeism.
Tregaskis said that marketers have had more success with systems that combine the use of a person with a recording, where the person makes the initial contact with the consumer on the telephone and then says something like "I have a special message for you." At that point, the recording is played.
Far less sophisticated telecomputers were first introduced in the mid-1970s, Tregaskis said.Today, telephone marketers like Tregaskis worry that the increase in the use of telecomputers will trigger consumer complaints that might lead to new restrictions on telemarketers, those who use people to make their calls as well as those who use machines.
"Maybe someday society will accept a taped communication in that manner and for that purpose, but it doesn't seem to be there now," Tregaskis said, "because you don't have the ability of asking the machine who are you, where are you, whom do you represent."