When my home telephone rang recently, I picked it up and was greeted by a musical fanfare and a recorded voice that informed me that I had won, and that I would find out what was won by staying on the line for, presumably, a sales pitch of some kind. I immediately hung up.

Such recorded pitches are a pain. They're even more a pain than the boiler-room pitches by purportedly handicapped people who want me to order eternally glowing light bulbs, purported police organizations that want me to buy tickets to a magic show, purported youth organizations that want me to sponsor visits by needy youth to Washington Bullets basketball games, and a suburban newspaper that periodically calls and wants me to subscribe so it can contribute part of my subscription fee toward cancer research.

My own standard answer to their using the telephone I pay for is a two-letter word: No.

A reader, a prominent Washington retiree, called the other day from Bethesda to recount his own most annoying variant on this theme. Answering the phone, he heard a recorded message much like the one recounted above. He hung up, assuming the connection would be broken. He picked up the phone again, only to find the unsolicited message still tying up the line. Another hangup. Another pickup. The same.

What gives? Does the unwanted caller have the right to tie up your line?

Web Chamberlin, spokesman for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., said the problem is primarily mechanical. "In older [telephone central] offices, if you get a call like your reader in Bethesda did, it takes about 20 seconds after you hang up to cut the call off. In the newer electronic switching offices, it takes about five seconds."

But here's the rub: "If you pick up the phone again within the time frame [the 20 seconds or the 5 seconds], the calling party automatically gets another 20 seconds or another 5 seconds on the line" -- and so on. So, advises Chamberlin, leave your line unused for at least 20 seconds before trying again.