On August 29th, on my blog about my home-town of Freeport, New York, I wrote an article describing how my grandmother had become a victim of fraud. To make the long story short, someone had called her pretending to be her grandson (I.E. Me!), and coerced her into wiring nearly $4,000 dollars to Mexico City. When my family contacted her phone company, AT&T, to request records of who called her that day, we were informed we required a subpoena. We’d need to hire a lawyer, file expensive paperwork, and in general burn even more dollars. All to get records of who called her.
Needless to say, when I wrote my Weekly Freeporter article about how AT&T is protecting a scam artist and posted it, BAM!, on their Facebook page for over two million people to read, I got a response awfully fast that I would be put in touch with someone from the office of the executive president. I thought, “Hey! I know there’s virtually no chance of getting the money back, and almost as small a chance of catching the guy who did this, but at least the company
Sadly, I did not get an answer I’m satisfied with; but, at least according to the person I spoke with, that’s not AT&T’s fault. According to privacy laws, there was no way to provide those records without one. Whether or not I agreed with the logic, hey, that’s the way it was gonna be, right?
So here’s where she’s right and where she’s wrong.
Privacy Laws Gone Wrong
Now, I know, I’ve been one of the biggest pro-privacy advocates you’ll find. I’m all in favor of not being forced to list your phone number in a phone book, for example. However, when I spoke to Betty Blake at the Office of the Executive President, she provided me with a rather convoluted, ultimately thin argument as to why the privacy of a person initiating a call was covered under the same jurisdiction as the “unlisted” number.
She proposed the case of having posted an ad on Craigslist. She supposed that she had placed something for sale and received two answers. Having agreed to sell her goods to the first, she wished to call the second and thank them. However, she did not wish for them to know her phone number. Leaving aside the fact that Craigslist almost certainly has a built-in measure to do such a thing, I responded that I didn’t agree. I compared the situation to someone knocking at your door, asking to speak to you. They are, in fact, initiating – of their own choice – a conversation. It should be, I argued, the right of the person receiving such a summons to know who is contacting them. I said, clearly, that the person could be carrying a knife and we’d never know the difference. I made clear that it should always be the right of a person receiving a call to know who is calling them, if for no other reason than that the person making the call is presumably doing so of their own free will, and has therefore yielded their right to privacy.
Now, Mrs. Blake wasn’t rude to me or anything like that, but she insisted that the law maintained that the person placing a call to a landline is protected, as the one receiving the call is not paying for it. I asked, then, whether or not my grandmother could cancel her service with AT&T and still receive incoming calls. After all, that is the textbook definition of not paying for something. I was immediately told that the call would complete, but not to my grandmother – to a message. In fact, that’s what we in the logic business call “a very bad inconsistency.” My grandmother pays to receive dial-tone, I was told. Therefore, she pays to receive every incoming call she gets – without paying for it, she would not get calls. So on this angle, again, I had made a perfectly logical argument and been denied by a fully faulty one.
Now we’re moving on to the real kicker, here. When presented with two equally inaccurate arguments as to why someone is denied a record of who called them, I asked Mrs. Blake exactly what law I was being denied this information under. Surely, as someone who had over a week to analyze this issue, I would get a direct answer. At the very least, AT&T’s legal eagles – presumably having some clue as to what one might call “preventative measures” – would have sent out a brief to it’s public relations department about why they couldn’t give this information out. Was it the Telecoms Law of 1982? The Information Exchange Act of 1827? Probably not, because I just made those two up.
Which, by now, you’ve realized means I didn’t get a specific answer, and that no specific law could be cited to explain why my grandmother was denied the right to her own information.
When You Can’t Cite A Law, You Don’t Have An Excuse
I did a little google search and found this exchange, from Just Answer (Legal), between a customer who experienced something similar and someone identified as “Savylawyer.” Savylawyer’s explanation did stipulate that the state one lived in might make a difference as to the law, but ultimately…
“Ultimately, records of blocked calls (which I assume this was), or any other calls for that matter are the property of the phone company, not you. I know this sounds strange, as you are the one making and receiving the calls, and paying for the line. But, ultimately, the records are the phone company’s property and they have the right to refuse to provide information unless ordered to by a court. ”
- Savylawyer, Justanswer.com/law, link goes to thread.
What that means isn’t so much that there’s a privacy law which keeps the caller’s identify a secret, as Mrs. Blake intimated. No, it’s more that the records are AT&T’s property and they can choose to give the information out or not. Now, perhaps there are laws which could be used against AT&T if they gave my grandmother her own information and someone was falsely accused of a crime as a result. I am fairly sure that wouldn’t happen (since there’s probably only, like, one person who called her that day, yeah?), but in the grand scheme of things I am sure they just want to avoid a lawsuit. Any company would want to do that, and if I had been told that there was a law (and what that law was, so I could spend this article attacking it in full) which restrained their actions, I’d be satisfied. Hell, I’d have been goddamned thankful because I would finally have a place to actually start to unravel this mess.
Instead, by exposing the typical corporate cowardice and ultimately failing to even have basic logic on their side, it’s my personal conclusion that they’re really not interested in helping their customers. Never mind that AT&T, along with Verizon have been sued over accusations of illegally providing customers’ information to such agencies as the NSA, showing exactly how willing to yield records they truly are. Never mind that this is an 88 year old lady who was robbed, and whose family just wants an explanation as to why she can’t have what she pays for. Never mind that they can’t, when asked, give a legitimate one; other than for Mrs. Blake to say that the law hasn’t really kept up with technology.
Boiled down; they’re too worried that someone might sue them. Unfortunately, the odds of getting actual relief (I.E. the stolen money back, or the criminal in jail) are so slim that we will probably not pursue legal action against AT&T (after all, that’s basically what a subpoena is). Fortunately, I don’t need a specific law to be cited for me to say that whatever the rationale is, it’s bullcrap. After all, as a lawyer of the New York Bar stated at freeadvice.com, there’s really no reason “why you would have any problem in obtaining them.”
Which is why there’s really no reason I can’t complain about this being suspect, at best; and worthy of changing providers at worst. I probably won’t pursue this any further, simply because it isn’t worth it, but this is just one story and it needs to be told. And, now it is! As they say, the more you know!