B.J. Rummel of Arlington was only trying to find the best route to East Somewhere. Instead, his call to the American Automobile Association turned into a full-blown fracas.
B.J. was chattering away about interstates and alternate routes when he heard a beep in the background. A few seconds later, there was another. Then another. Finally, he asked the woman on the other end of the line:
"Are you bugging me?"
No, sir, not bugging, she replied. We routinely make a recording of every phone call we receive.
Without asking the caller's permission?
That's right, sir, the woman said.
And without informing the caller in advance?
That's right again, sir, the woman said.
Why do you do it?
It's used for training purposes, sir, the woman replied.
By the time he called me, B.J.'s temper was doing an Old Faithful.
"Training purposes? What are they training--spies? Isn't this illegal? Don't I have any protection against this? Will the AAA turn the bug off if I ask them to?"
First of all, I discovered, it is not illegal. The beeps that B.J. heard in the background have been found in numerous court tests to be enough notice that a recording is being made, according to three Virginia lawyers I consulted.
Second, B.J. did have two kinds of protection. He could have hung up. And he could have asked the AAA employe to unplug the bug.
Would she have heeded that request? In effect, according to AAA public relations representative Tom Crosby, the answer is yes.
"Our policy on calls like this is to call the person back on a nonrecorded line if he requests it," Crosby said.
The AAA records calls to only two of its departments: road service and membership relations, Crosby said.
Why record the frustrated bleats of motorists who can't get their cars to start? "Because there may be a dispute later about what services we promised the member. This way, we have a record," Crosby said.
And why record direction-seekers like B.J. Rummel? "As the service representative told him, it's for training purposes," Crosby said.
Sorry, AAA, but it won't wash.
A road service dispatcher could take notes as he's talking to AAA members. The notes would resolve just as many subsequent disputes as a tape recording, it seems to me.
As for using tapes for further training, I say: the risk to membership good will is greater than any reward could be.
Don't service reps receive sufficient training before they go on the job? If the reps need further training, send them back to class. But don't cause a civil liberties dispute--and a public relations eyebrow-raiser--just because plugging a bug into a phone is relatively easy and relatively cheap.