I'm Not Interested, Thanks: Telemarketing Plagues College Students

The phone rings. And rings. And rings. You're not interested.

It rings again, this time for your roommate. He's not there.

Then you hear the calls moving down the hallway.

Students report that telemarketers--particularly from Discover Card Financial Services--are calling their rooms with unusual frequency this spring.

While students say the disturbances are minor nuisances at worst, many were baffled by how telemarketers got a hold of their personal information in the first place. Some suspected the University was selling their addresses and phone numbers.

But University officials said they were similarly confounded.

Instead, industry experts concur with a Crimson investigation that suggests telemarketers routinely get contact information from the student telephone book.

The results have prompted Senior Tutors to remind students in House newsletters and e-mail messages that the student handbook forbids them from selling the telephone book to any outside source.

But besides warning students, University officials say the complexities of copyright law render them largely powerless to prevent the use of their telephone directory by telemarketers.

Furthermore, the data-mining companies which obtain and sell Harvard students' information are largely unregulated by the federal laws that govern the way telemarketers make calls and solicit customers.

Following the Trail

Citing confidential business practices, Educational List Sources, a company which sold Harvard students' information to Discover Card Financial Services, refused to disclose the source of their information.

But the Direct Marketing Association (DMA)--the umbrella organization for major telemarketers--says the most likely source for such information would be a published student telephone book.

It is unlikely that telemarketers get the information from any other source. In any case, they get nothing from the Registrar's office.

"We're picky about who we give [student information] to inside the university, never mind outside," says Gregory E. Atkinson, an assistant to the registrar.

"I don't know how they could get them," he says. "We're the only ones with the full database."

Bell Atlantic, the telephone company that routes Harvard's telephone calls, says it is similarly close-mouthed about its customers' personal information.

"Years ago, we offered our directory lists for sale, and gave our customers the option of opting out," says Bell Atlantic spokesperson Joel H. Johnson. "So many people opted out that we realized this was not something we wanted to be doing."

Indeed, the experience of other schools suggests phone books are the likely source.

Tracy L. Riddle, associate dean of students at Augustana College, a Lutheran college in South Dakota, says a company called Career Horizons flooded their campus with mailings offering $100 to the first student to provide it with a student telephone directory.

Riddle doesn't know which student in this school of about 1,000 sold the directory, but soon after the offer, student were flooded with eight to 10 calls a day hawking everything from cars to credit cards.

"I've never seen students so passionate about anything," she says. "Part of it is that they're getting calls at seven in the morning and as late as 11 at night. It's just a very big inconvenience."

Riddle says there was no disclaimer on the telephone book warning against its misuse

"We're kind of naive," she says. "That's what we learned through this whole thing. There's no warning on the book itself, but you can guarantee it will be next year."

You Are Public Information

It's not clear whether that warning will make any difference.

Harvard already has a disclaimer on its student telephone book reserving the book for "Harvard University use only."

But University Attorney Allan A. Ryan says, warning or not, the General Counsel's office may be powerless to prevent telemarketers from using the directory.

A Supreme Court decision in 1990 ruled that a telephone book was little more than a compendium of information arranged alphabetically, and so its contents could not be copyrighted.

"A good deal of the information [in the telephone book] is semi-public," Ryan says.

In addition, Ryan says his office would be hesitant to take legal action against telemarketers, saying he might not feel comfortable deciding what mail students should be allowed to receive. After all, many students might find the offers they receive in the mail quite helpful.

Indeed, companies wouldn't bother calling potential customers unless it was profitable.

In 1999, telemarketers sold $230 billion worth of goods and services over the phone, and that number has been growing at a steady rate of 8.5 percent a year.

A study by the Direct Marketing Association found that every dollar spent on telemarketing typically yielded $10 in sales, while a dollar spent on more conventional advertising yielded just $5 in sales.

College students--as members of an age bracket old enough to begin making financial decisions, but too young to have formed established connections with particular brands--are a particularly sought-after group.

And telemarketing, explains Chester G. Dalzell, a spokesperson for the DMA, is one of the only ways for companies to come into direct contact with consumers.

"You can do all the TV advertising you want, you can do all the direct mail you want, but the only way to truly find out if you can benefit the consumer is to talk to them: Ask them how much they're paying, and then say 'We think we can give you a better rate,'" he says.

Unregulatedness

While there are rules that govern the way telemarketers make calls and solicit customers, there are relatively few rules governing the way they acquire names in the first place.

When a telemarketer calls to solicit a customer, they are required by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to tell you on whose behalf they are calling, and they must release a telephone and address for the company they represent.

Most importantly, if a customer asks a telemarketing company not to call again, it they must honor that request. For each violation, a consumer can collect between $500 and $1,500 from the company placing the call.

But the laws that govern telemarketers currently only apply to organizations at the front end of the industry, which place the calls and sell the products.

There is an entire industry operating in the background, compiling lists of names, selling phone numbers and e-mail addresses, that goes largely unregulated.

These companies do the dirty work of the telemarketing industry--they collect personal information, and then sell it for a profit.

Educational List Sources recompiles its lists every year, and sells them for $45 per thousand names.

Telephone numbers and e-mail addresses can be added to the list for $10 extra for each category.

While some companies--Educational List Sources among them--choose to honor student requests to have their names removed from the list, a DMA spokesperson said they are under no obligation to do so.

Although consumers have the right to be removed from the lists of individual telemarketers, data-mining companies can continue to sell their name to other telemarketers over and over again.

Delivering the Mail

While most students say telemarketing calls are simply annoying, officials from Harvard Yard Mail Center (HYMC) say direct mail campaigns are a serious drain on their staff.

The mailings, which typically follow a week or two after a phone call from Discover, can swamp a mail center, says HYMC employee Nassim Kerkache.

He doesn't know where telemarketing companies get student names and addresses, but it takes his staff hours to deliver the mass mailings that arrive several times a week.

Worse, unlike regular mail, which usually tapers off after students move into the Houses, Kerkache says that HYMC continues to receive credit card offers and other junk mail for College students even after they become upperclassmen.

Several students interviewed on Saturday said they had been convinced by Discover's sales pitch and signed up for the card.

But most described the calls--and the mailings which follow shortly after them--as minor annoyances.

"They go straight to the garbage," said Zong Da Chen '01 of the multiple mailings he's received from Discover and other companies. "I didn't even look at them."

However, Kyle R. Freeny '01 said the phone calls, as well as their timing, were getting on her nerves.

"I wanted to give them a tip not to call college students at 9 a.m. on a Saturday," she said. "I was so disoriented, I struggled to the phone, I don't even know what I said."