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Blocking Unwanted Callers

04/02/10

  02:28:30 am, by Nimble   , 752 words  
Categories: Reviews, Thoughts, Ethics, Spamming

Blocking Unwanted Callers

I must admit, a few months ago, we were bandying about the idea of changing our phone number.

Why?

The incessant barrage of telemarketers and scammers was getting to be too much. They outpaced our actual calls from friends and family by about a 4:1 ratio.

Pledging to a small charity turned out to be, surprisingly, one of the worst things we could do. Not particularly fair, that. Any charity using Xentel for its telemarketing dooms pledgers to twice-daily calls, and they didn't stop when we fulfilled our pledge. We ended up getting calls from other Xentel-associated charity drives as well.

I used to do a fair bit of programming with modems. I thought that maybe I could bring a bit of sanity to the household by putting together a simple program on a modem that can detect caller ID to cut short the repeat calls. Before doing that, though - given that it would be a dedicated chunk of time - I thought I might check to see if someone had a similar problem and had come up with a solution.

Well, someone had.

PhoneTray Free is an awesome piece of software. It well and truly had everything I needed as well as a few things I had not thought of.

It stays around as a tray application on your task bar. When a call comes in, it pops up the number and who it is, if that has been provided.

For every number that comes in, you can assign it a name if you want to (much of our caller ID comes in with a number but no name), and you can assign it to the 'privacy manager'.

In the privacy manager, you can:

  • Give the number a distinctive ring (from the ones provided or any .wav sound files you might have)
  • Have it use the built-in speech synthesis to announce the call (XP and Vista have it - I cannot figure out how to tell Vista to speak at anywhere near the volume level of the ring sounds)
  • My favourite: ZAP THE CALL

The call-zapping is what gave us back our sanity. You can tell it to basically just hang up on certain numbers. If you have a voice-compatible modem - more on this later - it can actually play them a message. The built-ins are quite nice for this: this number has been disconnected, we don't accept telemarketers, and a particularly annoying set of alternating tones for the unrepentant.

Other nice little things are being able to apply some of these rules to categories of numbers. Long distance numbers will pop up with a "should I zap?" question by default.

You can also turn on "quiet time" - hours during which people should not be phoning. You can simply turn off the PhoneTray sounds or, if you truly want your peace and quiet, you can have it pick up the phone and play a message. You can make exceptions for some numbers.

So what sort of modem should you use with this?

Well, I started with a little USB US Robotics modem, but it turned out not to have voice support.

What ended up working was the Hiro H50113 V.92 56K USB Modem. Decently cheap ($33 from TigerDirect.ca, not including shipping) and it supports the voice functions of PhoneTray really nicely.

Perhaps it does not bear saying, but you do need caller ID on your phone service in the first place. The modem cannot do any caller ID checks without it.

Also, make sure that when you are testing it with your own cell phone that you turn the zap mode off on your number. It's a bit embarrassing when you try to call home otherwise!

PhoneTray has its own number lookup-and-comment system, akin to the pretty good whocallsme and 800notes web sites, though it typically gets less volume of comments on numbers. You can jump to it with the "Online Lookup" menu item, or by clicking in the balloon that pops up when someone calls.

On the Xentel side of things, we did manage to stop the calls by writing to dontcall@xentel.com, but it took a while to track that down.

In the meantime, I have been blocking credit card scammers, free cruise scammers, creepy survey scammers (beware any of them that ask when you work and whether you have dogs at home), phone service scammers and other nasties, as well as just adding in my own description of nameless-but-valid numbers like those of cousins and hospitals.

It saved our phone number. It really did.

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