French Telephone Service: Most of the Folks on the Phone Are Phonies

Why Do We Even Have These Things Any More?

April 13, 2016By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Ask not for whom the phone rings. It rings for anyone who’ll fall for the latest scam.

Here are six words that you don’t hear very often: I don’t have a cell phone. I know that this is tantamount these days to saying “I don’t have a life,” but it’s true. When I reveal this peculiar quirk of mine to other people, their reactions divide them into two categories, vastly unequal in size and degree of belligerence.

The smaller category comprises the aggressive jerks who stop people in the street and ask to use their phones. When I say, however truthfully, that I don’t have one, these guys invariably think that I’m lying.

And then, predictably, most of them become even more aggressive, jerkier jerks. After a few such encounters, I’ve started telling them that my phone was recently stolen, which is something that they can more easily relate to. Especially since that’s what half of them have in mind in the first place.

In the second category we have the rest of the world’s population, the nonviolent majority, as it were. Most friends and acquaintances presume that my phonelessness is a deliberate choice based on philosophical principle, like becoming a vegan or a suicide bomber.

In fact, for me it is, in a sense, a matter of principle. And the principle is this: I don’t want a cell phone.

I had one of the old, bulky, not-so-smart phones about ten years ago, and I hardly ever used it. Even with the cheapest subscription then available, I ended up paying around €20 a month to make a total of three calls and receive two.

This was not what Martin Shkreli would call cost-effective. So I gave it up and haven’t yet felt any real need for this particular technology. On the other hand, as soon as there’s an app for locating the nearest inadvertently funny English shop sign, I’m in.

But, for the moment, if you want to contact me for vocal interaction, you have to call my landline phone at home. And when you do, I won’t answer.

This is also a matter a principle, and the principle here is this: nowadays when the phone rings, the chances that it’s someone I actually want to talk to are ever-increasingly slim.

My friends and clients contact me mostly by e-mail, and my wife contacts me by shouting from the next room. So when the phone rings, it’s nearly always some kind of pollster, huckster or outright shyster. In other words, an aggressive jerk.

For example, my Internet-cable-TV provider calls once in a while, trying to get me to subscribe to an even longer list of channels that I’ll never watch. Considering how ill-qualified their tech help people are (as discussed in this hard-hitting investigative exposé), I’m surprised at how well-trained their commercial staff seems to be: they all apparently have Harvard PhDs in not taking no for an answer.

If I tell them that I’m not interested, they want to know why. And if I tell them why, they have a thick, heavy playbook of persuasive comebacks, retorts and rejoinders. It’s a good thing none of them work for the Trump campaign.

The only way for me to end the call is to violate every principle of politesse that was drilled into me while growing up in the Midwest and say, “I’m hanging up now.” And then, of course, hang up. It’s unpleasant and a waste of time.

And those are the honest calls. In the past year or so I have seen a definite shift toward less honesty in telephonic communication. Telemarketing has never really taken off in France (which is reason enough to put a French flag overlay on your Facebook profile photo), but now, I regret to report, we’re starting to get those annoying robocalls that go something like this:

“Hello! How are you this fine day? Don’t bother answering because I’m a recording! This is Common First Name at the Customer Service Department of Unnamed Company! We are ready to deliver that Unspecified Thing that you didn’t actually order! But even though we claim that you ordered something from us, somehow we don’t have your name or address! So you have to call us back! But at a different number! None of this makes any sense whatsoever! Until you find out that the call costs you €20 a minute! And has nothing to do with any order or delivery! So dial now! Dial now! Dial, my pretties, dial!”

The French authorities are usually pretty tough on what prosecutors call “deceptive practices,” so when I started getting calls like that I wondered how those grifters could get away with such bald-faced chicanery. Then my perplexity turned to unease when, about a month ago, I got the call from the mattress scammer.

It was not a recording. The phone rang and, in a weak moment, I answered. And heard the voice of a very, very cheerful guy, who greeted me by name and inquired after my health and mood. At least one of which was about to deteriorate rapidly.

I was still trying to figure out if I recognized the voice when he finally identified himself. He gave me his (or rather a) name and said that he worked for the store where I had bought a mattress in 2014.

This was patently untrue — I haven’t purchased new bedding in more than 10 years and pointed out the mistake. But he kept reassuring me that I was wrong, and to prove it he rattled off the information on “the receipt” that he had “right here on the desk.”

This was the creepy part: I’m not listed in the Paris white (or yellow or taupe or beige) pages, but he had my name and address. And, obviously, my phone number. This was confusing enough that I stayed on the line, trying to figure out where it was going.

Where it went was another two or three minutes of Mr. Glib jabbering away as though we were long-lost friends. I really didn’t understand what was going on, and said as much. Several times.

Finally, after my fifth or sixth “Je ne comprends pas,” he changed his tone. Instead of being an irrepressible font of bonhomie and good cheer, he suddenly became (surprise!) an aggressive jerk: after a short pause and a long string of strong words, he hung up on me.

Gee, the poor guy suffers from abrupt mood swings. It’s probably hormonal.

As far as I can figure out, it was a variation of the scam explained here (in French). The con artists call or accost people, hoping to chance upon someone who believes their story, and try to convince them that their “recently bought mattress” is full of bedbugs or cockroaches or saliva-sucking centipedes or some other kind of vermin so vile that it would have made the Pharaoh let even his own people go.

Then they offer to exchange it for a fee, usually with an old mattress found on the street or in a landfill. But they forget to mention that last part. Hey, the customer may be your best friend, but you don’t have to tell him everything!

It seems like this would be, as J.P. Morgan would have said, a buttload of effort for a nano-chance of snagging a chump, but evidently, like those spam e-mails proclaiming “You Have Won a Randomly Chosen Enormous Sum of Money in a Totally Unknown Lottery,” it works often enough to keep the wolf, if not the fraud squad, from the door.

Although not in this case. As it turned out, I didn’t lose any money, but I did lose something else: the desire to hold any electronics-filled piece of plastic next to my ear.

So for the foreseeable future, here are the instructions for anyone who wants to talk to me and is out of shouting range:

Call me at home. You’ll get my voicemail. Leave a message. If the latter makes sense and doesn’t involve my buying anything, I’ll call you back. Just as soon as I can convince some jerk in the street to lend me his cell phone.


© 2016 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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