Etiquette Doyenne Miss Manners compares the answering machine with the butler in old-fashioned houses, screening and taking messages for Sir and Madame while permitting access during visiting hours. But modern-day business needs go far beyond the scope of a simple answering machine. New methods, devices, and services can function as 24-hour administrative assistants, research librarians, and gofers ready to handle your customers’ needs pronto – and they don’t demand a check at the end of the week.
There are four cheap and easy methods for automating your responses to specific client needs no matter when they need your information. The effectiveness of each method depends on your business, your clients’ needs, and the kind of information you plan to make available. As a rule, the complexity of your system will grow as the quality of the information you need to deliver improves. Unfortunately, this also means that your clients will need increasingly sophisticated equipment on their end. As technology advances, however, prices will continually drop, giving more people the ability to take advantage of your automated offerings, and ultimately leaving you free to concentrate on running your business.
The Voice Choice
You may dismiss voice mail as an answering machine on steroids, but if your clients need information that you’d normally give out by phone – addresses, office hours, or event schedules – voice mail may be the most effective answer. An easy-to-navigate system can combine announcements that efficiently transmit information to your clients, with multiple voice mailboxes to presort their responses and feedback. You want to be sure that your recorded instructions are clear, accurate, and helpful. Test it regularly and have an impartial third party call in to dummy-proof your system. You may also consider combining your voice-mail system with the human touch of an answering service, in case your clients get confused or prefer to talk with a live operator. Voice mail is the most accessible method for all customers (try naming one client who doesn’t have a phone), but unfortunately it doesn’t lend itself to distributing complex information, such as long price lists or diagrams.
Simple voice-mail services are available from your local phone company, but more flexible and customizable systems are possible when you handle voice mail through your PC. A variety of systems are now being bundled with telephony capability (see “PCs Answer the Call” in this issue), including a host of add-in software and hardware that can give you nearly unlimited options. The biggest drawback to a PC solution is that, unless the system comes with wake-on-ring capability, you need to leave the machine on at all times. Also, if you plan on handling massive amounts of voice mail, you may want to consider dedicating a computer to the task, unless you’re fond of constant interruption.
Fax Turnaround If you need to provide written information – product specs, price lists, pictures, brochures, or catalogs – a faxback (fax-processing) system may be most effective for you. Users call in and select from a voice-mail-style menu of options to get the information they need. Once they’ve made a selection, your faxback system sends the document. Voice-mail and faxback utilities are often found in the same software packages, and increasingly, telephony PCs are set up for basic faxback duties right out of the box. Although setting up faxback can be complex, manufacturers are trying to make it easier for nontechies by adding friendly graphical interfaces to the software. As with voice mail, depending on the traffic you anticipate on your system, you may want to dedicate a computer to the task. And of course, to use faxback, your customers must have access to a fax machine.
If you plan on doing heavy-traffic faxback, or if you’ll be using it as a cornerstone of your business, you may want to look into turnkey and standalone systems. These are dedicated machines that can handle multiple lines and hold thousands of faxable documents. Sophistication and prices vary widely – from Ibex’s $1,395 Robofax-PRO (408-736-1485), Brooktrout’s $2,995 QuadraFax (617-449-4100), and Fax On Demand’s $5,995 Faxbase II (800-329-1777) to Computer Peripherals’s $129 ViVa 14.4 Data/Fax/Voice (800-854-7600). If you expect fairly low volume, you’ll be able to get by with a simple, single-line solution, but as your needs increase, you’ll want the improved performance of a dedicated system. As with voice mail, test your system regularly to ensure that it’s behaving as promised.
Return to Sender If your customers use e-mail, an automated mailing system can respond easily and instantly to their messages. A “mailbot” intercepts messages to a particular address – firstname.lastname@example.org, for instance – and sends back a message acknowledging receipt and giving information, while stowing the message in your in-box for further action. More sophisticated systems offer different messages depending on the customer-specified subject line or on words in the body of the message, providing some of the functionality of faxback. A message sent to email@example.com, for instance, might return an e-mail saying, “For a price list, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; for directions to our offices, e-mail email@example.com, and so on.”
Automated e-mail is an excellent option if you have clients who go online regularly. You’ll need to get access to the Internet because online services such as America Online and CompuServe don’t yet offer this service. A simple mailbot response – one that sends out the same message no matter what – may be available to you as part of the basic service from your Internet service provider (ISP). For more complex systems, work with your ISP to design a service and maintenance plan that meets your needs.
The Virtual Parlor For providing customers with the maximum amount of information (and giving your company increased visibility to boot), consider putting up a page or two on the World Wide Web. A Web page can provide a significant amount of information, including product lists, pricing, and contact information. You can also design your page to allow readers to send you e-mail directly. The beauty of a Web page is that it acts as both contact point and billboard. If you include your page in such directories as Yahoo or Infoseek, potential customers looking for your type of businesses can find you quickly and easily. And if “seeing is believing” in your business, you can use your Web pages to present photos (and even sound and film clips) of your offerings.
Using a Web page to keep in touch means that your customers must have access to the Web (a reasonable expectation now that online services have expanded to the Internet). You’ll need to either hire a Web-savvy consultant to design your Web pages or learn to make them yourself. It’s not difficult, but it is time-consuming. There are several software packages on the market, including Quarterdeck’s Web-Author, Microsoft’s Internet Assistant for Word, and Novell’s WordPerfect Internet Publisher that work in conjunction with your word processor to make Web-page creation as easy as printed-page design. You’ll also need to find an Internet provider willing to store your pages, which will generally cost you a onetime start-up fee plus a smaller monthly charge.
One thing to watch out for is that Web users have come to expect flash and sophistication, so a poorly designed home page can leave your customers unimpressed. Also, don’t set up a page just for the sake of having one. It may make you feel like a card-carrying member of the “digital revolution,” but if your customers don’t have a clear idea of what they’re getting, your site is either unnecessary or poorly implemented.
Your clients have big ideas about when they should be able to reach you. You probably have big ideas about when they shouldn’t be able to reach you. Automated responses make information about your business accessible to them 24 hours a day – without keeping you at the beck and call of beepers and bells.
It all started when my third telephone answering machine joined its predecessors and quit taking intelligible messages. Because its warranty had expired, my options were to spend yet another $150 for a new one or $150 getting the old one repaired. Such is the economics of electronics.
It seemed like the perfect time to junk the answering machine and start getting my phone messages on my computer, where I already get my e-mail, news stories, faxes, and everything else worth saving. After all, my home office is kept toasty by two computers that are left on 24 hours a day. If I’m not online downloading stock quotes into one machine, it’s because I’m loading business cards and receipts into the other. A third computer is my test bed, and a fourth gives me computing power at my other “office,” a 5 1/2-acre avocado farm in the mountains of north San Diego County. Suffice it to say, I’m a little involved with computers. In fact, you’re more likely to see a duck strolling past a June bug than to see me passing up a chance to perform one of my daily activities with my PC. Installing one of the new Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) boards seemed like a natural solution.
Mind you, I’m not into PC technology for its own sake. I don’t spend my off-hours debating the merits of Star Trek with media junkies on the Internet. For me, technology is good for only one thing: profits. And a dozen years of pushing the personal technology envelope has shown me that every investment I’ve made in computer or telephone equipment has paid off in enhanced productivity – usually in short order.
Being a writer and a farmer gives me some communications needs that are, to say the least, difficult. Nearly all my writing business these days is done over phone lines. But playing telephone tag with editors and interview subjects, swapping e-mail, dialing up online news and other services, and taking down faxes can get messy. I end up logging in and out of half a dozen communications programs a couple of times a day, not to mention cutting and pasting stories and messages back and forth between them.
My farm, which is several hours away from my home office, needs plenty of attention as well. I need to be able to bounce back and forth between the two at will, with no falloff in productivity. It would simplify my life immensely if I could manage all my communications from one device (at least one device per location). I’d like to download all my messages – fax, voice mail, e-mail – to a single place on my computer with a single communications program. I’d also like the same program to direct my faxes, e-mail, pages, and other outgoing communications to whatever device my technologically challenged addressee has available at the time. I also need to get at the faxes and voice messages on my different machines when I’m on the road. Is that too much to ask?
It is, for the fax/modems I have now. They lack both the horsepower and the software to make it happen. But CTI boards are a different breed; they’re equipped with powerful digital signal processors (DSPs) and other specialized components, as well as the software to take advantage of it all. CTI boards take the relationship between PC and telephone to a new level and come close to delivering the universal in-box and integrated address book/dialer that I crave.
Actually, I’ve been watching and waiting for CTI technology to hit its stride for some time. My old 386 is equipped with a TyIn 2000, one of the early fax/modem/answering machine combinations that began trickling out a couple of years ago. It works great, but its modem is only 2400bps, an orphaned relic of the industry’s first push to integrate the telephone and computer. This time, though, it looks like the market is finally ready. Such PC makers as AST, AT&T, Austin Computer, and IBM have begun to replace the communications and multimedia boards in their retail PCs with the same multipurpose CTI add-in boards that you can buy at retail. The next time you buy a PC, expect your new machine to include this capability. But with more than enough PCs already cluttering up my offices, I just needed an add-in card – something I could quickly install so I could get back to pruning my trees.
Installation – As Easy As…
When I started looking into the new CTI boards, I discovered that the communications options had expanded practically overnight. You’re now able to upgrade to whatever level best fits your needs and budget – not to mention your tolerance for hardware and software installation.
Manufacturers have bridged the gap between PCs and phones in two ways. Three of the products I checked out – Creative Labs Phone Blaster, Zoom Telephonics VFPI4.4V, and Prometheus CyberPhone – are essentially souped-up modems equipped to handle sound and bundled with voice-mail software. If you’re just looking for a voice-mail system, don’t want anything fancy, and favor a simpler installation, you might want to check this category out. These boards didn’t require that I uninstall any of my existing hardware except for my modem (I have an internal unit), so installation hassles were minimal. There are even external models available for the truly inside-the-computer-phobic. These devices are reasonably cheap and easy to install, but they lack the more complete integration between voice, fax, and e-mail that I sought.
High-end CTI boards, on the other hand, provide dramatically increased functionality – at the price of more time and effort. Devices such as MediaMagic Telemetry 32, Spectrum Signal Processing Office F/X, and Diamond Multimedia TeleCommander 2500XL use what’s known as a DSP chip. DSP chips are designed to deal with sound data, which makes them ideal for handling voice messages. These chips are highly versatile, and manufacturers have taken full advantage of that fact by making them do double-duty as modems, sound cards, CD-ROM controllers, and midi/joystick ports. Some boards also included wave table functionality, which enabled me to record crisp-sounding greetings. If it had been appropriate for my business, I could have added professional-sounding music, customer instructions, or even an advertisement to play for callers on hold. I particularly appreciated the DSP boards that allowed for software upgrades to such functions as 28.8Kbps throughput, text-to-speech capability, and voice recognition in the future. These helped reassure me that I wouldn’t have to relive the hassles of installing the hardware.
And what hassles they were. “The biggest gotcha [with CTI boards] is ease of installation,” admits Jay Blazensky of Creative Labs. “Bringing down the learning curve is one of our greatest challenges because we’re asking someone to install a product that encompasses so many different functions.” He’s right. I installed half a dozen of the most complex high-end CTI boards, and though all of them eventually performed as documented, it definitely took some tweaking. Of course, your experience will vary with your PC’s configuration and your own level of expertise.
A case in point: My AST was already equipped with a fax/modem, sound card, CD-ROM interface, and joystick interface. I tried to avoid removing and cataloging all of them by just swapping out the CTI board for the fax/modem and leaving the sound card to drive the CD-ROM. In my naivete, I had imagined that I could switch between a CTI board’s audio functions and the sound card. But after wasting hours trying to achieve peaceful board coexistence, I eventually had to yank all boards with equivalent functions and hook up the CD-ROM and joystick to the CTI board.
The yanking wasn’t hard. But when I tried to match the power, CD-ROM, and audio cables to the right brand of connector, I confused the direction of the CD-ROM cable – a mistake capable of frying the CD-ROM drive had I been less lucky. Similarly, the CD-audio connectors were mislabeled on one CTI board, causing me several anxious moments as I plugged a Sony cable into what was labeled a Panasonic connector. Fortunately, it worked. Unfortunately, there was no CTI connector for the audio cable that had once gone from the AST’s motherboard to its fax/modem. I just left it off, crossed my fingers, and again no harm was done.
It’s All in the Software
All CTI boards provide cutting-edge hardware, but the level to which each fulfills the promise of a universal in-box and phone book is dependent to a large degree on software. I still couldn’t put every type of message in one place on these products, nor all possible phone numbers on one page of their phone books. The best of the bunch were the systems that came with Phone Blaster, Audio Telephony 2000, SoundExpression 14.4VSp, and TeleCommander 2500XL, whose in-boxes let me house various combinations of voice messages, faxes, e-mail, and even audio files from phone conversations that I recorded using their products. Their phone books let me keep different combinations of voice, fax routers, e-mail, and pager numbers, and they were integrated with autodialers as well as fax and e-mail managers to automate these processes as much as possible.
I had hoped that CTI boards would seamlessly merge traditional phone functionality with applications already on my hard drive. Unfortunately, the lack of industry standards (see “Have You No Standards?”) has stymied this development somewhat, but a couple of products are coming close. For example, Day-Timer Organizer can be integrated with the communications center of the Diamond Multimedia’s Telecommander 2500XL. If Telecommander recognizes a caller via caller ID and you’ve got that number in your database, the appropriate Day-timer file is displayed before you even pick up the phone. (You’re out of luck if you use another organizer such as Act! or Sidekick.) Several boards have simultaneous voice-over data, which lets you send binary files – spreadsheets, voice recordings, memos, or other shared work – to the person you’re speaking with, all on a single phone line.
I didn’t have any problems installing the software that came with these products, although each required up to 15MB of my hard disk and much more for message storage. However, all of the CTI communication centers changed my system files – AUTOEXEC. BAT, CONFIG.SYS, WIN.INI, and SYSTEM.INI – and most lacked uninstall routines. So before I installed a CTI board, I created backup copies of those files so I could restore my PC to its original state should something have gone awry during installation.
Draw or Hold?
Whenever buying a PC product, I always count on at least one thing: It will quickly become obsolete. This means that, especially for an emerging technology like CTI, the temptation to “wait until things settle down” is palpable. Although that rationale has a certain internal consistency, it overlooks the main reason for having a PC in the first place – enhanced productivity and increased revenues.
For under $300 – the price of a slow fax/modem not so long ago – these boards give you a state-of-the art communications system with one of the best price/performance bargains going. If you need further convincing, compare the price of buying a phone, answering machine, modem, contact manager/address book, and communication software separately. Then take into account that most phones and answering machines don’t talk to your PC. Is the choice really that difficult?
Nevertheless, I still haven’t found the CTI board that I’m totally satisfied with – but then again, my standards are in the stratosphere. Although low-end models cause fewer headaches, I’m interested in having the whole promise delivered. If I’m going to pop the top on my PC and move boards around, I want my time and money to go toward the most capable product available. Still, just installing an internal modem scares some people. A CTI board would probably make them run for the hills. If tinkering inside a PC isn’t attractive to you, make sure your next new PC has one preinstalled. That’s the way I’d have gone, if only I had the desk space.
Have You No Standards?
Seamless integration of the computer and the telephone might already be with us if the two industries involved weren’t worlds apart. CTI boards are somewhat troublesome because they perform so many functions, but many of the problems associated with them are due to the lack of standards on both sides of the computer/telephone divide. At this point, CTI board makers are still doing everything themselves – single-handedly combining hardware and software to bridge the gaps between PCs and phones.
Microsoft is attempting to jump-start some standards by incorporating its Telephone Application Programming Interface (TAPI) and Mail Application Programming Interface (MAPI) into Windows 95. The TAPI and MAPI standards would allow many applications to use the same address database and would provide tighter integration between these products and CTI boards (not to mention eliminating the hassle of having to modify five different programs’ databases when one person changes his phone number). This also means your CTI board’s in-box and phone book would take on a look and feel consistent with other Windows 95 applications and could include a wider variety of entries, such as e-mail addresses. You could even use other software such as contact managers from third parties in place of the bundled phone book, autodialer, or message center.
Telephone and computer hardware companies, however, are also attempting to hammer out standards for the way our digital PCs process analog information from communications devices. The jury is still out as to which standard developers will eventually accept – but the deliberating could easily drag on late into 1996.
IF YOU’RE LIKE MOST PEOPLE, THOSE ADORABLE brochures that are stuffed in with your phone bill get scrapped instead of read. Problem is, these are where the phone company touts its latest goodies–from 500 numbers to 100 new ways to use your pound (#) and star (*) keys. New services, it seems, are added monthly by local and long-distance carriers alike. You may be missing out on some cheap and easy ways to enhance your communications.
To keep you informed, we’ve rounded up the most useful new offerings. Note: All prices vary by region. In addition, if you can’t find a service that’s mentioned here, it may be offered under a different name by your carrier or soon will be added to the menu. Don’t be afraid to request services you,d like.
Extend the geographic presence of a company with remote call forwarding. This lets you advertise a phone number in a remote region that is also serviced by your local telephone company. Calls are automatically routed to your home market, so clients can reach you without paying long-distance rates. (You pay instead.) Combine this service with distinctive ringing, which assigns unique rings to different numbers on one phone line, so you can identify those calls in advance and answer the phone appropriately. Remote call forwarding costs about $16 a month and $40 to $100 for installation. Expect to pay $4 to $20 a month for distinctive ringing with a wide range of installation costs.
Enhanced 800 numbers.
The success of 800 numbers and heated long-distance competition have inspired a host of new services. If your carrier doesn’t offer such extras, though, or you want to shop around for a better price, you can now change long-distance carriers and keep your old number–the one you may have spent thousands to promote.
If you do business nationally and want to segment 800 numbers by their place of origin, check out area of service. Calls stimulated by an ad in a West Coast newspaper, for instance, can be routed to your order-fulfillment house in San Jose.
If your week is divided between multiple offices, time of day service lets you route 800-number calls based on the time and/or the day they’re made. Calls can also be divided among long-distance carriers to take advantage of time-sensitive calling plans.
Direct termination overflow sounds more technical than it is. It’s simply sending calls to a secondary 800 line when the first is busy–which could mean the difference between taking an order and missing it.
Basic 800 service costs about $15 a month plus 20 cents per minute for each inbound call, along with a onetime charge of about $25. Prices for 800-number features vary dramatically.
Virtual receptionist. You’ve probably heard of caller ID, but consider caller ID with name (slightly more expensive), which displays the number and the name of the caller on a standalone machine, phone, or answering machine. (For interesting caller ID phones, see “Ring Fever” in the May issue.)
Combine either type of caller ID with selective call forwarding and only callers you specify can be transferred to another number–perhaps your cellular phone. Caller ID with name costs about $8 a month plus a $30 setup fee. You’ll pay around $7 to install selective call forwarding, with a $4 monthly charge.
When you’re at a remote phone–at a friend’s house or in a hotel room, for example–all your calls can be routed there. Just sign up for 500-number service, also often called follow me.
All you do is dial a special access number and instruct the service to route calls to a temporary location. A sequenced approach is also possible, so, for example, the phone can ring first in your hotel room, then on your cellular, and if necessary, alert your pager. You’ll never be out of reach again.
Go digital. ISDN (integrated services digital network) is a complex topic, but one worth mentioning. Available from an increasing number of local phone companies, ISDN offers businesses and residential customers high-bandwidth, digital transmission of both voice and data. A normal phone line can carry information at 28.8Kbps, but an ISDN line provides speeds up to 128Kbps. High-speed Internet access, simultaneous voice conversations and data transmission, and desktop videoconferencing all are made possible through ISDN.
The downside is threefold: Availability varies greatly from region to region, phone companies aren’t yet up to snuff at handling requests, and setting up the equipment, which includes replacing your trusty modem with an unfriendly terminal adapter, can be difficult. Typical pricing ranges from $35 to $50 per month plus per-minute charges of around five cents. Additional phone equipment must be purchased as well.
If managing your busy phone system has you seeing stars, do more than pound your fist. Try hitting the pound or star keys on your phone to access some smart new features.
When your intended can’t be reached, delayed messaging, often activated by #123, delivers a voice message. This long-distance option lets you record your greeting and then attempts to deliver it by ringing the recipient’s phone every 30 minutes for up to six hours. It also can deliver a message at a preselected time. The cost to the caller is about $1.75 per use, which can be billed to a calling card or credit card.
Just missed a call or got a mysterious hang-up? Automatic callback dials the number of the last incoming call with in 30 minutes (times vary), even if you didn’t answer your phone. Dial *69, keeping in mind that this may be limited to the calling area of your service provider. The cost is roughly 75 cents per use or $4 per month with a $30 or so installation fee.
If you have no patience for busy signals, repeat dialing continues to try the number for up to 30 minutes, or until the line is free, whichever comes first. To activate this service, tap the disconnect button, dial *66, and hang up. When the line is free, your phone rings with a distinctive sound, and the call is completed when you pick up the receiver. There’s also a distinctive beep when repeat dialing is used with calling waiting. The service runs about 75 cents per use or $3 a month with a setup fee that can range from $13 to $33.
If you get a threatening call, press *57 to activate call trace. This holds the caller’s number in the phone company’s computer so the number can be reported to the police. Finally, call block (*60 to activate and *80 to deactivate) lets you block calls from being made to specific phone members for around $4.50 per month
Of all the options available, the ones that work best are those with which you are most comfortable. Start with one or two features and then add a few others as your comfort level and your business grow.
“YOU GOTTA LOOK AT THIS presentation I just put together,” a colleague said over the phone. “It’s in your electronic mailbox now.” I dutifully signed on, downloaded the file, and opened it up. Kind of. It looked like a programmer had been cursing his keyboard. Lots of symbols, a few real numbers here and there–but nothing presentable. Why? It was created in freelance Graphics for Windows; I don’t have Freelance, and I use a Mac.
The holy grail for computer manufacturers and publishers is to create a proprietary system that be comes a de facto standard. The holy grail for computer users is a world without any pro prietary systems and one standard, so that any computer can read any file at any time. Chasing the grail, I’ve seen many a mirage.
When I first saw a CD-ROM demonstration nearly a decade ago (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia), I thought that the grail was within my grasp. I thought that any computer, as long as it had a CD-ROM drive, would be able to read any disc. I was wrong.
When all the major commercial online services began allowing e-mail to and fro with Internet users, I again caught a glimmer of the grail. Before, I had to subscribe to multiple services just to make sure I wasn’t missing any business mail. But, pleasant as it is to be connected (virtually) to everyone (virtually) in the world, I am by and large restricted to deadly dull text messages. And I’m into visuals these days. There’s so much to see out there.
When the Power Mac was introduced–with all of the surrounding hype about its ability to run Windows software–I perked up. But that turned out to be a futile marketing gimmick designed more to look good at trade shows than to work on a user’s desk. True, the Mac can read Windows and DOS text files, which is nothing to sneeze at (unless you’re allergic to Bill Gates). But it ain,’t the grail.
Now, I gaze toward the Net, where all proprietary systems are being merged into one holy grail. Forget for the moment its reams of information, millions of e users, and the frontier excitement that has entrepreneurs frothing. Think of the Net as the one standard that levels the playing field and allows my computer to send any file to any other computer at any time.
First, you’ve got the programming language HTML (hypertext markup language), which allows you to establish a home page on the World Wide Web and link it to any other home page. It doesn’t matter if – you’re blinded by the midnight sun in Sweden in front of a Gateway and I’m shivering in a hut in Antarctica in front of a Power Mac–graphics are graphics.
Second, you’ve got Acrobat (Adobe Systems), software that lets you or anyone else receive and view files with graphics and typefaces that match the original file–even if you don’t own the program that created it. IBM has announced its intention to ship Acrobat’s Reader component with its computers, and Navigator, the popular World Wide Web browser, will include Acrobat technology in future editions.
Third, knowing that point-and-click access to the Web is just around the corner, publishers are making their software Web-compatible. Lotus, for example, is configuring Lotus Notes to reside on the Web. Publishers of word processors, desktop publishing, and spreadsheet programs are bound to follow. Thus, instead of signing on to a proprietary online service to download a file created with a proprietary language, as I did to get the Freelance presentation that looked like a programmer’s brain dump, I will soon be able to pull that or any other file off the Web and read it-graphics and all. A sip of wine from the grail itself.
Take it a step further.
Instead of buying proprietary hardware and-software to videoconference with a colleague who needs the same gear, why not go onto the Web and exchange voice and video there? People are already doing that, wherever they are, with whatever they’ve got. No equipment needed–beyond a highspeed modem and/or a broadband phone line. Holy GrailNet! Another droplet from the goblet.
IF YOU THINK YOUR PRIVACY IS PROTECTED, GUESS again. Anyone with access to a computer and certain online services can dig up more about you in one afternoon than an old gumshoe could track down in a week. In just 10 minutes, for example, we found out Vice President Al Gore’s and House Speaker Newt at Gingrich’s home addresses and phone numbers, their lengths of residency, the value of their homes, and their estimated incomes, using the PeopleTracker database (CDB Infotek, 800-427-3747). PeopleTracker also provides another choice bit of information: The names, addresses, and phone numbers of Gore’s and Gingrich’s neighbors.
Fame and fortune, however, are not criteria for disclosure. Depending on the state you live in, other CDB Infotek services and databases, such as Nexis, might provide personal information about you: your divorce, bankruptcy, and credit history. Strangers can also freely eye any court judgments against you, information pertaining to a criminal record, your bank balance, previous address, and voter registration. Other juicy morsels available for quick and easy retrieval: where and how you secured a loan, whether you have defaulted on a loan, if there are: any state or federal tax liens against you, who sold you your home, and what size or type of house you have.
Privacy advocates are wary of the easy retrieval and widespread availability of this personal information. Supporters, on the other hand other personal information. Services are not extraordinarily invasive because the data is already a matter of public record. The only difference, proponents contend, is that the information is distributed faster and is easier to access.
Fair Representation? Both sides agree that quick and easy information gathering will be the primary factor prompting more people to glean more data for a variety of uses–most of which are legitimate, necessary, and helpful.
These services can be a godsend for anyone researching an investment opportunity, for example. Judy Fahys, a business reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune unravels the tale of a businessman who put together a partnership for a luxury hotel and golf course community in the Bahamas. After learning that the partnership was not filed properly with the Utah Department of Corporations and federal authorities, suspected fraud. In just three hours, she uncovered that the only type of business this guy was into was running scams. The con man had a rap sheet and a number of outstanding judgments against him. Although he probably couldn’t even get a car loan, local investors were eagerly handing over their hard-earned savings because they were unaware of his tainted public record.
Entrepreneurs can check out a prospect’s payment history or find out if an especially litigious client is doing business under another name. Ted Smith (not his real name) owns a small public relations firm in Boston. He often uses CDB Infotek services to check out the credit histories and environmental records (for citations) of prospects. But these information checks have also come in handy for personal reasons.
Smith got a call from his daughter, who wanted to borrow $5,000 to buy a franchise. He did a background check on the company and discovered that the franchise had not only been successfully sued three times in two states over two years but also had liens against it. There was no longer a need for the loan.
There was a time when, due to high costs, only professionals, including private detectives, journalists, and other people who worked in or were affiliated with the research industry, could afford to access this personal information. But now almost anyone can affordably gather data unassisted. Suzanne Wiley, a Sacramento, California, researcher was able to locate her brother-in-law’s biological parents. Although she’s no neophyte to fact finding, Wiley says that a novice can achieve similar results.
The birth father has a very unusual name, which Wiley admits made her task of locating him much easier. In a matter of minutes and at a cost of what she estimates to have been around $2.50, Wiley used CompuServe’s PhoneFile database to conduct a search for all Americans with that last name. The database also provides phone numbers. Wiley quickly called the family. By happenstance, the birth parents had married each other after giving up their first child for adoption. They were shocked and thrilled to hear about their son. A reunion followed and everyone was happy-thanks to the information superhighway. But there’s not always a happy ending to these stories.
A battered wife who skips town to evade an abusive husband, for example, can be tracked down in minutes. Although goodfaith players sometimes lose court cases, a database is not likely to convey the circumstances. Someone who is now regarded as an upstanding citizen may have broken the law a decade ago. This person must face the reality that a youthful indiscretion will continue to live in his electronic file forever.
Private Subjects, Public Venues Credit bureaus are required by law to drop bad-credit information after 10 years. But in a world where information is recycled, regenerated, and regurgitated by countless parties, an ancient credit ding can continue to pop up long after that time frame has passed. As Jim Sulanowski, a former writer for the Privacy Journal, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Trying to protect your privacy is like trying to stop a computer virus. The information just keeps getting sold, resold, and sold again.”
You may wonder how credit information can be passed on when it is illegal, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, to give out consumer credit information without the consumer’s consent. It seems that a number of credit bureaus have been busy finding ways around the privacy shield laws by selling what are known as credit profiles. The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that the Federal Trade Commission has ordered a number of credit bureaus to stop selling credit information to direct marketers. The FTC’s most recent action, against Trans Union, however, is being appealed.
Privacy advocates fear that hyper-target marketing could occur if online services were to sell what many subscribers consider personal information. Last October the news that America Online would sell its user list sparked controversy, for example. Although AOL president Steve Case tried to assure subscribers of AOL’s “sensitivity toward our members,” information watchers foresaw a future in which, if the practice spread, any service or subscriber might learn potentially damaging facts such as who contributes to homosexual bulletin boards. Will Congress, which chose to shield information concerning consumers, video rental choices after Robert Bork’s rentals were made public, step in?
“Traditional fair information practices, developed in the age of paper records, must be adapted to this new environment where information and communications are sent and received over networks on which users have very different capabilities, objectives, and perspectives,” writes the Privacy Working Group, which is drafting a code for privacy principles. A 1991 Time/CNN poll found that 93 percent of those polled believe that companies that sell personal data should be required to ask permission from those whom it profiles.
The Name Game: Are You a Player? A friend who subscribes to a number of online information services allowed me to conduct a search on myself using PeopleTracker. I braced myself for the awful moment when I would see my income onscreen. Get used to it, I told myself. This is the information age.
But when I input my name into PeopleTracker, which provides address, income, home value, as well as neighbor’s addresses, I found that I didn’t exist. Nor did my mother-in-law or a onetime boss. Why? It’s still a new service and not everyone is on it–yet.
On the fourth try, a friend-s name came up. The service listed his address, “median income,” wealth rating, and home value (about $181,600). The service also listed his mother’s name (she co-owns the house), the name of his live-in significant other, and the names and phone numbers of his neighbors. I asked him if the information was accurate. “Somewhat,” he said. “The median income was close enough but the home value was low.” Of course, data services don’t promise accuracy. They merely claim that the data reflects information as it exists according to other records. Boy, am I glad my name didn’t come up.