TeleZapper: Will It Bedevil Telemarketers?

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Royal Appliance Manufacturing, the same company that markets the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner, plans to market a device that it claims can fool predictive dialers into thinking consumer phone lines are disconnected.


The TeleZapper hooks directly into consumers' home phones and takes less than a minute to install, the company said. When a consumer or answering machine picks up an incoming call, the device plays the same tone heard when a disconnected number is dialed.


Most predictive dialers are programmed to listen for the tone. The dialer automatically hangs up the line and removes the number from its calling list when it finds a disconnected line, the company claimed.


The $49.95 device will be available by retail in late August or early September in mass merchandise stores, and a two-minute direct response television ad for the product has been tested in some markets. The company has not decided whether it will continue DRTV efforts, but it has made the TeleZapper available online at www.telezapper.com.


Royal Appliance Manufacturing, which is marketing TeleZapper through its new subsidiary Privacy Technologies, Glenwillow, OH, would not disclose which retailers will carry the device, nor would it divulge the markets in which it tested the DRTV campaign.


The Cleveland-area inventor who developed the device introduced Royal Appliance to the TeleZapper, said Charlene Brandt, a company spokeswoman. The inventor chose Royal Appliance because of its reputation for success in promoting first-to-market products, she said.


Teleservices technology experts said that in theory, the TeleZapper could work. The question is, will consumers want it?


Bill Maikranz, technology specialist at Oetting & Co., New York, said he doesn't think so.


"I see this as a geek toy," Maikranz said.


Several alternatives for screening telemarketing calls are already available to consumers, such as caller-ID, experts said. Even allowing an answering machine to screen calls accomplishes the TeleZapper's purpose to some degree.


"There are so many more effective ways," said Keith Dawson, author of "Call Center Handbook." "Why try to thwart a dialer?"


One inconvenience inherent in the TeleZapper is that it plays a tone for every call, not just those made by telemarketers. Thus, all callers, including friends and relatives, hear the tone as soon as the consumer answers.


Brandt said the tone is brief and occurs at the very beginning of the call. The tone could even help market the device by word of mouth when TeleZapper customers explain the sound to their curious callers.


"It's just a slight, little tone," Brandt said. "By the time you've picked up the receiver and put it to your ear, the tone has already been emitted."


Brandt said the TeleZapper has some advantages over caller-ID and answering machines. When predictive dialers encounter lines that do not answer or are answered by a recording, they usually put the number back in line for a future call, whereas TeleZapper ensures that the consumer's telephone number is removed from the list completely.


Also, consumers typically pay a monthly fee for caller-ID or voice mail. With TeleZapper, consumers pay only once for the device, and it works for as long as it is connected to a phone.


"This is a universal problem for everyone," Brandt said. "We think it will have mass appeal."


Both Dawson and Maikranz said they had never heard of a device that works like the TeleZapper -- by mimicking the disconnected-line tone -- but both agreed that the device could work, at least in theory.


In practice, the TeleZapper faces some potential problems. For instance, the device would have to deliver the tone as soon as the telemarketing call is picked up, Dawson said; otherwise, the predictive dialer could recognize that the number was live before the TeleZapper had a chance to work.


Also, in many cases, telemarketers do not automatically remove disconnected lines from their lists, Maikranz said. They call repeatedly to see whether a consumer on their list has moved or to confirm that the list is no longer working.


"It would work in some instances," Maikranz said, "but not in all."


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