Bea Jones of Christiansburg and Anne Colleran of Salem don’t know each other, but they have something in common.
Both women are extremely displeased about robocalls politicians made — to their cell phones — in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
Chances are you’re well acquainted with those rotten and distracting intrusions — but on your land lines. My home phone got at least 25 political robocalls in the past three weeks.
If Jones and Colleran are any indication, the calls may soon be coming to our cells, too.
Jones said she and her husband were enjoying a quiet evening at home last Sunday. They ditched their landline back in April, and the best thing about that was they weren’t getting any campaign calls this election season, she said.
Sometime after 6 p.m., her cell rang. It’s a number not many people have, she said. When she answered, she heard the beginning of a recorded message by Republican Senate candidate Dave Nutter.
Jones hung up quickly — good for her. But it left her weirded out. Because it meant that not only did the Nutter campaign somehow get her cell number, but that they had also linked it to her address as well, and knew that she lived in the newly-drawn 21st Senate district.
She searched in her phone for the number so she could call it back to tell someone in the Nutter campaign how unhappy she was. But the number was masked.
“I don’t care who robocalls me, I would not vote for them,” Jones said emphatically. “I find it’s a breach of my privacy and I’m not going to put up with it. Maybe that’s why Nutter lost.”
Colleran, who has lived in Salem for six years, said she and her boyfriend, David Brown, both got robocalls to their cells Monday night while they watched TV. It was a little after 8 p.m.
Brown’s rang first. “He hangs up the phone and he says, ‘I can’t believe it,’ Colleran told me. “Not even 5 minutes later, I get the call. It was from some guy named Butch.” The offending phone number was masked in her cell, too.
When she and Brown went to vote the next day, they planned to retaliate against “Butch” by voting against him. But “he wasn’t even running in Salem,” Colleran added.
Both of them wanted to know how the heck campaigns got hold of their cell numbers. Me, too. So I called Nutter’s office and left a message and emailed him as well, but he didn’t respond.
The only candidate named “Butch” in our area who was running Tuesday was Butch Church, who was re-elected Roanoke County supervisor. So I called him, too. Angrily, he denied the call came from his campaign.
“I’ve got one statement: Butch Church has never had a robocall in 12 years. So have a nice day — I don’t know who these people are,” he said.
One expert in this field is a guy named Shaun Dakin, who lives in the Falls Church area of Northern Virginia. He’s a privacy advocate who in 2007 founded the nonprofit National Political Do Not Contact Registry. You can sign up for it at stoppoliticalcalls.org.
There are lots of ways for campaigns to get cell phone numbers, Dakin said. The most common is buying voter registration lists from state election offices. The state Board of Elections sells that data to political campaigns.
Virginia’s application for voter registration includes a line asking for phone numbers, although no voter is obligated to list one. So if a voter lists a cell phone number, chances are a politician will get hold of it. Both Bea Jones and Anne Colleran doubted they had put their cell numbers on their applications.Jones last registered to vote more than 20 years ago, before she had a cell phone.
Beyond that,” there are tons of list brokers out there,” Dakin said. Those guys compile data, then slice it and dice it resell it to whoever wants it.
The problem with the National Political Do Not Contact Registry is, it’s no guarantee against campaign robocalls to your house. That’s because lawmakers exempted their own political campaigns (along with charities and market research firms) from telemarketing restrictions in the 2003 “Do Not Call” act passed by Congress.
Only a relative few politicians have agreed to abide by the registry, Dakin told me. Most of the ones he’s talked to have sheepishly declined. “They say, ‘Well, my campaign team wants to keep all the armaments in their arsenal.’ ”
So Dakin and a pal, Aaron Titus, a technology lawyer in New York, have come up with a genius plan. It’s a for-profit company called ReverseRobocall.com. It may launch as soon as this week. They’re still working out some bugs.
For a modest fee, ReverseRobocall.com will allow aggrieved victims such as Bea Jones and Anne Colleran to record their own messages and robocall the politicians back.
“If a politician wants to give us their voice, why can’t voters do that same thing?” Dakin asked.
The message is up to the caller. It can be a tender missive about pending legislation, or an angry rant of retaliation for a campaign robocall. Users will be able to make a single robocall for as little as $1, or call all 535 members of Congress for about $20. They’ll also be able to robocall corporate lobbyists.
Now that’sl empowerment.
It seems to me there still are a few weaknesses to Dakin’s and Titus’ scheme. First, unlike the politicians, their company will take the high road. It will allow reverse robocalls only to lawmakers’ official or campaign offices. Second, ReverseRobocall.com will call only during business hours.
Thus, you won’t be able to make a retaliatory robocall to a politician’s home at dinnertime, or at 3 a.m. Darn.
“We want to be an example of how to do it right,” Titus told me. “We’re going to poke an awful lot of powerful people in the eye, and the last headline I want is, ‘Reverse Robocall breaks the law.’ ”
The other drawback is, the company’s not public. If it was, I’d recommend loading up on its stock.
They’re going to make millions. Good for them.
Update: I received the following email from Sunday afternoon:
From: Dave Nutter[SMTP:DAVENUTTERFORSENATE@GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Sunday, November 13, 2011 1:55:55 PM
To: Dan Casey
Subject: Re: Please call Dan Casey at The Roanoke Times
The Dave Nutter campaign never set out robo calls on Sundays. Delegate
Nutter is opposed to any campaigning on Sunday. Does your source have
a recording of the message?