Please Somebody Steal this Idea!

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sim-blocked-1419939-1279x1433The phone rang (again). It was a most inconvenient time (again). I didn’t recognize the number (again).

When I picked it up I heard a nice woman’s voice inform me there’s nothing urgent with my credit card… I hung up. Again.

How many times do you get these obnoxious calls purporting to come from your credit card company? Can’t somebody do something about this?

They can. And here’s how…

But first, a trip in the Wayback Machine…

It was the early 1980s and I was sitting in the office of the firm’s owner. I wasn’t in trouble (this time). No. He would regularly invite his fresh-off-the-university employees to come to his office and pry their brains for “the coming thing.” He didn’t call it “the coming thing.” That phrase didn’t become cool until a decade later. No one says “the coming thing” as the coming thing. But that’s another story.

It was an odd question to ask a lowly keyboard operator, but, lucky for him, I had an active imagination. If wanted to know, if I could invent anything, what would it be. I told him I was always fascinated by those old movies and crime shows where they had to “trace” the call. You remember what I’m talking about. It’s the scene where the phone rings, the damsel in distress answers, and the manly figure of the inspector cups his hand on the receiver end of the phone and, in a hushed voice, says, “Try to keep him on the line as long as you could.”

Invariably, because the rules of drama demand such, the perp would hang up immediately after the techie-looking guy with the huge headphones wrapped around his ears whispers, “Just a few more seconds…”

Click!

I figured if they could trace a call in those 1950s gumshoe films, the era of transistors (remember, this was the early 1980s) might have made it a bit easier (and faster). I noticed our new office phones had small LED displays on them to tell you what number you were dialing and what extension was calling in. I put two and two together and said, “We should be able to do this on our home phones, too.”

I could tell the boss was a bit skeptical, so I doubled down. I asked him, “and once we do that, do you know what we do next?” He shook his head, having no idea what my young brain would concoct next. I told him, “If people know who’s calling before they pick-up the phone, they could program their phone to prevent the call from coming through.”

A programmable phone? In 1983? Surely he must have thought I was just some computer addled geek. (He did put me in charge of building the company’s computer infrastructure from scratch less than a year before. His only spec: “Chris, we want to double the size of the firm in two years.” We did. And more.)

Of course, if we could program our phones to block incoming calls, we could also do the reverse. I also envisioned the phone company could offer a service where you could mask your phone number so the person on the receiving end was blind to your number. This was too much for my boss. He kicked me out of the office.

It turns out I passed the audition. A little more than a year later, he promoted me in a very public and unexpected way for a position I neither applied for nor wished for. So perplexed was I by this that I confronted the boss and asked him outright if I understood what he had just told the firm. (Really, who would make a 26 year old – and someone not even schooled in finance – the head of operations of a multi-million investment company?) The logic of my skepticism, however, could not overcome the reality that he was more confident in my abilities than I was.

And, apparently, his judgment was correct. In my final two years at the firm, I had overcome corporate (but no longer my own) doubt to fashion a nearly billion dollar enterprise from nothing. That’s right. Zero to just shy of ten figures in less than twenty-four months flat. But don’t think that makes me smart. In fact, it only reveals what a dolt I am. I did this without ever asking for a piece of the action. That’s right, I gave it all away for free.

Incidentally, the concept of “Caller-Id,” was coincidentally being toyed with in some BellSouth Lab in Orlando, Florida around the same time I mentioned it. BellAtlantic conducted a similar limited market test in Atlantic City a couple years later. BellSouth launched the first full-scale roll-out of Caller-ID in December 1988 in Memphis, Tennessee and it took four years for the product to reach its entire nine-state market.

In our own region, Rochester Telephone conducted an experiment in 1990. A hearing on the Telephone Privacy Act of 1990 (September 19, 1990), reported “In the State of New York, Rochester Telephone Corporation could not even give Caller ID away. As part of an experiment approved by the New York Public Service Commission, that company had offered 500 free Caller ID units and no monthly charge to the 10,000 customers in one of its exchanges on a first come, first served basis. The most recent data, which covers the first 15 weeks of the experiment, shows that only 393 customers took the free Caller ID service… In addition to offering free Caller ID service, that company offered free per line blocking and per call blocking to all customers in the exchange. After the first 15 weeks of the experiment, 551 customers had requested per line blocking. Therefore, the number of people who wanted to block the identification of all of their calls exceeded the number of people willing to take Caller ID for free.”

The concept of Caller-ID didn’t really take off until the advent of cell phones. With these devices, it wasn’t an option but a standard feature. Today, we take this invention for granted…

And therein resides the solution to our loathsome credit card calls. Presently, Caller-ID only identifies the actual phone number, not the true identity of the caller. (That identity only pops up if the caller is already on your contact list.) The intrusive credit card calls get through because they don’t hide their number (many people automatically block calls that don’t reveal the calling number). Sure, once the annoying number is shown, you can block it, but these credit card spammers are one step ahead of you – each call comes from a different originating number.

So, here’s my next idea. Telephone carriers should offer to automatically reveal not only the telephone number of the calling party, but the caller’s true identity. That gives the receiver another way to determine if the call is worth picking up.

Go ahead. Steal this idea. It’s worth a million. I won’t even ask for a piece of the action.

I guess I never learn.

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