Protecting yourself

Are you inviting junk cellphone calls?

Fred Williams

Downloading that “Call Me Maybe” ring tone could make you a target of calls from people you definitely didn’t want to hear from.

Telemarketers and debt collectors are scrambling for sources of reliable cellphone numbers, in the absence of directories provided by the telecom carriers. And what’s an alternative source of those numbers? Companies that supply ring tones by the download, according to Rollin Girulat, a senior data quality manager at Experian.

In an October blog post, Girulat noted that a few large companies “harvest” cellphone numbers from sources such as online surveys and by-the-download services, including ring tones.

Mobile phone numbers are just getting more difficult to keep private. Now that 34 percent of households are wireless-only, consumers often wind up giving their cell to businesses as a routine part of their account information, Girulat said via an email interview. “This may be the only number available if they don’t have a landline number to provide,” he said.

Phone data from one-time transactions goes out of date after a while, he noted, indirectly giving some privacy back to cellphone users. However, utilities and other companies that have ongoing relationships with consumers can be sources of up-to-date telephone contact information.

The bottom line: Cellphones have a built-in measure of privacy that you may be giving away without realizing it.

PrivacyStar, a cellphone privacy app from First Orion Corp., recommends limiting phone downloads, as each download makes your cell number available to the supplier. And when signing up for online contests or services that require your phone number, look for a checkbox to opt out of the use of your personal information for updates. (It’s also wise to be careful about sharing your mobile number in the offline world, the company said in its tip sheet for consumers.)

Call screening apps like PrivacyStar’s help block unwanted calls. Presumably the app providers are not also sharing your number with telemarketers out the back door — PrivacyStar’s terms of service statement says it may share your information internally.

Are all these defensive measures really necessary? The federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act is supposed to restrict unsolicited calls to your cellphone from companies that use automatic dialing equipment, including telemarketers and debt collectors. But this does not seem to deter all unwanted calls, as many people have discovered while sitting down to dinner or navigating rush-hour traffic.

And even if you don’t have a cellphone app to help you do it, you can still lodge a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission if your phone has become a source of more annoyance than communication. Call them, definitely, if you’re getting bombarded with junk calls.

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