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How to get your own back on the cold callers... by keeping them talking

By Sean O'Grady

Is that Mr Vaughan?" Despite the name you see on this column, I always answer yes to this when they phone me up. 'They' being the cold-callers. Am I mad? I read the other day that the Government is planning a 'crackdown' on these callers, and strengthening the fairly useless Telephone Preference Service. Well, I know that cold callers cause all manner of distress, and con people out of money. But I, for one, would miss their calls. Like a particularly persistent canvasser, please allow me to explain why.

At some point a Mr Vaughan must have been allocated my mobile number, and his details remain on some old telesales database that has been passed around and used by a variety of call centres to flog stuff to the likes of, well, Mr Vaughan. Suits me, because, like the cold callers, I prefer to conduct my activities under a false flag. I enjoy the rituals.

First, there is the warm familiarity of the telesales scripts. I like to see if there are any new tricks around. At the moment, a typical 'intro' usually comprises two key elements. First, they use a plausible-sounding bogus company name – one that is just suggestive enough of legitimacy without actually falling foul of the law by clear misrepresentation of a real, reputable firm or government agency. So something like 'the Consumer Helpline' or 'Friends Insurance' or 'the Insurance Accident Service'. That sort of thing. I quite like collecting those.

The second element is the open-ended, apparently well-informed 'open' question/statement, of the kind that psychics use in their stage routines. For example: "I'm phoning about your personal loan", or "It's about your mortgage, Mr Vaughan", or "I'm phoning in connection with your road traffic accident". Chances are they'll get a yes to such a broad inquiry. Now if none of these applies to you they might just go away, which would never do. So I try to make it sound like they do indeed apply to 'Mr Vaughan'.

With the car accident caller I answered all the questions about whether anyone was hurt, damage to the car, possibility of a personal injury claim, other parties involved – and I accepted their expressions of sympathy in the spirit of insincerity in which they were proffered. Then, when there was no other reasonable way of dissembling, I had to tell them that the accident happened in 1987, before the call centre guy was born, and involved an Austin Mini and a Renault 12, models of car I had to explain about. Then the phone went dead. I had pushed my luck too far. I had turned the tables and become a nuisance respondent.

I spent a good 20 minutes with that one, though a 43-minute conversation with a woman trying to get me to make a PPI claim still stands as a personal best. I count all of these episodes as 'wins' in the unceasing battle of wits between the consumer and the rip-off merchants. On the BBC3 documentary The Call Centre (essential homework for me, though the people depicted are not fraudsters, I hasten to add) one of the lads with the headphones complained that someone he rang up in Birmingham confirmed his contact number was '0121-why-don't-you-do-one'.

I admire the Brummie brio, but it's the wrong approach – terminating the call far too soon. Far better, say, to pretend to live in a Grade I-listed building so you can spend a quarter of an hour discussing with a double-glazing saleswoman the (non-existent) options for PVC replacements on 'your' historic Jacobean home. Or posing as a wealthy speculator who is indeed alive to the vast profits to be made by buying titles to land in Brazil or the Scottish countryside or 'in land earmarked for development', or 'investing' in cases of 'rare' wines and whiskies, happily weighing their merits against equities, bonds and bullion.

And I always decline when they offer to send the brochures out, which can happen disappointingly early in the discourse. Tip: if you run out of things to discuss with a cold caller you can always go down the "Where did you get my phone number from?" route. While they are used to this, it's fun to see how far you can get by interrogating them on their non-explanation about 'a database' before the line goes dead. They can be so rude these people – ending the call before I have a chance to say goodbye properly.

I estimate that I must have wasted scores of call centre man-hours in such absurd diversions. Apart from the entertainment value, I regard myself as a sort of telephonic superhero, a human shield to protect the gullible who might succumb to their blandishments and give them their life savings for a plot of useless land in Fife. Every minute the call centres and boiler rooms waste with 'Vaughan' is a minute when they do not have the chance to defraud someone less mischievous than me. I await their call.

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