Roger Anderson was an experienced telephone-systems engineer living in Southern California, and had been blogging about telecommunications for several years as Roger The Phone Guy. But just like the rest of us, he suffered from daily annoying and persistent telemarketing calls. Some of these calls may have been legitimate attempts to drum up business rather than outright scams or shady deals, but even so he was sick and tired of being inundated with calls and having his family time interrupted. He also knew that telemarketers use some sketchy tactics such as false caller id’s to try to get through and this made him angry.
One day Anderson got stuck on the phone with a telemarketer selling air-conditioning cleaning services. Feeling himself reaching a breaking point, he handed the phone to his 14-year-old son and instructed him to keep the man on the phone and “waste his time!” After the call, his son told Anderson the telemarketer had cursed at him and hung up. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Anderson became determined to prevent telemarketers from ever calling his home again.
The initial system was pretty basic. He set up an answering system whereby a caller would need to press “1” in order to be connected to his landline. This worked to the extent that it blocked all the unwanted calls from getting through. But when he analyzed his telephone records Anderson realized that the auto-dialers were continuing to call his number over and over again at various times during the day and night. He figured that the auto-dialer must identify his system as an answering machine and would keep trying until it got through to a real person. Just stopping the calls from coming in did not satisfy him.
“ … I realized I wasn’t inflicting any pain on the telemarketers,” he told Tony Macia of The Weekly Standard. (“Telemarketers, Ahoy;” December 22, 2017). If this sounds a bit too hostile, consider the statistics provided by Paige Leskin and Prachi Bhardwaj of Business Insider. In a January 30, 2019 article, they reported that according to The Wall Street Journal, in 2018 robocalls in the United States increased by 46% over 2017 – amounting to an incredible 26.3 billion calls.
While there are numerous ways that consumers can attempt to block telemarketing calls, and Federal agencies are taking some action, robocallers are constantly creating new and more sophisticated tactics. Keeping up with them is a constant battle!
Anderson knew that the technological side of robocalling was fairly cheap. He figured that taking up the time of the human being who eventually came on the line to make the pitch was where he could make the most impact. He made a few recordings himself with some basic phrases and responses and programmed chatbots to handle the marketing calls. Sensing pauses or a questioning tone in a human voice, the chatbot offers a response. They can’t actually formulate a response (yet!) but play the snippets, usually confusing and frustrating the telemarketer who thinks he is talking to a human being! Some of the “conversations” are pretty hilarious. A scenario might go something like this:
Bot: “Oh, no, there’s a bee on my arm. I’ll stay quiet, but just keep talking”
TM: “Sure, uh, okay…. (gives his sales pitch for a minute or so…., then pauses)
Bot: “Sorry, I was so freaked out about this bee. It’s gone now, but I couldn’t really
pay attention. Tell me again what you’re calling about?”
In February of 2016 Anderson launched The Jolly Roger Telephone Company, offering the service for $6 a year for three phone lines (either mobile or landlines). He established a Facebook Page and initiated a Kickstarter campaign, followed by an Indigogo campaign in May of 2016. While neither campaign met its goal, Anderson continued to promote his service through Facebook and by sharing some of the funniest calls on YouTube. (A digital-audio recording is made of all calls and provided to the customer.) Interest in the robots grew rapidly.
On February 2, 2016, audio clips were aired on The Heidi and Frank Show on a Los Angeles radio station and the same day KGO News Radio in San Francisco requested that Anderson talk on the air about his robots. On February 5th Britton Peele of DallasNews.com wrote an article, and Jolly Roger was mentioned on a radio station in New Zealand. February 8th Anderson appeared on BBC World Service Newshour, and shortly thereafter a London telephone number was provided by Digipigeon! By the 18th, two Australian carriers offered to provide a phone line for the service so it could be offered there. On the 20th, Anderson appeared on “The New Screensavers” show on Tech.tv. On the 25th he appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and an article in the New York Times led to his appearance on Good Morning America. On March 1st he appeared via Skype interview on television in Poland! While he was understandably disappointed in the results of the Kickstarter campaign the overwhelming interest in his robots was proof he was on the right track.
Anderson is still the captain of the ship, but now has a robot pirate crew of very interesting characters. For example, there is Crazy Mazy who is a nice but confused old lady, and Whitey Whitebeard, a talkative senior citizen who gets impatient if he feels the caller is wasting his time. Crazy Mazy holds the record for keeping a cable salesman on the line for an entire 45 minutes!
By April 17, 2018, Jolly Roger Telephone Service had processed a million calls and reached two million in early February of 2019. Like a true pirate captain, Anderson feels no remorse for using robots to frustrate telemarketers. He once said that even if they represent a legitimate and worthy cause, “I find it incredibly invasive to use automation to call me.” So using robots to frustrate their attempts to contact him is simply “turnabout is fair play.”