On June of 2003, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission opened the doors to the National Do Not Call Registry, a database of phone numbers whose owners didn’t want to receive calls from telemarketers. The registry, centered on a website at DoNotCall.gov, was generally rather successful for a while, but over the years has become less and less reliable. (If you want to know why, Mental Floss has a good explanation.) The rule of thumb now: if you give your number to an organization — online in particular — you’re going to ultimately get unwanted robocalls.
Combatting these calls is a fruitless endeavor despite all sort of efforts. It’s not a problem limited to the United States, either; other nations have established similar Do Not Call efforts with a similar lack of sustainable success. Take for example the efforts in the UK; called the Telephone Preference Service, it is widely considered to be broken at best.
And yet, one guy turned the tables.
In 2011, Lee Beaumont lived in the English city of Leeds, and like most everyone else, was fed up with the telemarketers — human and robocallers alike. His friends and family rarely called him on the phone; it being 2011, they and most other legitimate contacts sent him primarily emails and texts. As a result, many if not most of the calls he received were unsolicited ones from people trying to sell him something (or scam him). Changing his number wouldn’t work — ultimately, he’d have to give out that new number to a bank, retailer, or someone else who could let it seep into wherever telemarketers get their data.
And that’s when an idea hit him. Per the Guardian, Beaumont “paid £10 [that’s about $13] plus VAT to set up his personal 0871 number,” a premium-rate telephone number. (Americans know these as 1-900 numbers.) As the BBC explained, Beaumont then used that as his phone number whenever a commercial relationship was involved: “Every time a bank, gas or electricity supplier asked him for his details online, he submitted it as his contact number.” He was honest about what he was doing, telling these organizations that, yes, this was like any other 0871 number and, yes, you’d have to pay to call him, but that he was fed up with phone scams and didn’t know what else to do.
The number ultimately forwarded to his regular phone number, but not before callers were informed that if they stayed on the line, they’d be charged 10 pence per minute for the courtesy of speaking with Mr. Beaumont. Callers didn’t know this, but Beaumont received 70% of that per-minute fee. And it kind of worked. The BBC reported that the number of such calls Beaumont received fell by approximately half, and yes, some others actually paid up. Within two years, he made about £300.
Not everyone was happy with Beaumont’s ploy, though. Phone Pay Plus, the regulator of 0871 and other premium phone numbers in the UK took exception. Through the press, they advised against others following in Beaumont’s footsteps, saying that “premium rate numbers are not designed to be used in this way” and warning those who dare try that “they will be liable under [Phone Pay Plus’s] code for any breaches and subsequent fines that result.”
From the Archives: Off the Hook: A creative use for pay phones.
Related: A telemarketer call blocker. I have no idea if this works (or how) but it has good reviews and doesn’t require you to change your name. (It doesn’t seem to work with cell phones, though.)