Consumer first, citizen second

Published on

The San Francisco Chronicle

I used to think of my home as a haven from a heartless world. No more. A recent bout with bronchitis made me realize that marketers, like aliens from another world, have invaded my home and show no sign of leaving.

The phone, I find, rings all day long, not just during dinner hours. Most are hang-ups, the result of machines randomly dialing in search of fax machines and live people.

Because I was waiting for a doctor to respond, I answered every call. Big mistake. A series of cheerful callers offered me low mortgage-refinance rates, a trip to an island and incomprehensible phone plans.

So I let the answering machine do its job. But that didn’t stop telemarketers from leaving taped messages: “Hi, I’m Rebecca, and I have a free cell phone to give to you.” “Good Morning, Ruth, (don’t you love the personal touch?) this is Michael and I’m calling you to see if you’d like Direct TV.”

My unwillingness to answer the phone, of course, did not stop my all-in-one, does-everything-but-cook-dinner machine from disgorging endless junk faxes.

An outfit called “Wellness Center” informed me I could “Watch the Pounds Melt Away, Without Diets” if I gulped enough of their “natural supplements.”

Other junk faxes offered me A Disney Vacation at Orlando; a free Web site and a free domain name for “my company”; an opportunity to buy stocks in the new “Decorative Concrete” market (whatever that is); a chance to buy copying machines at “factory-direct prices”; an announcement that “Executive Recruiters” is searching for “consultants,”to earn from $300,000 to $750,000 a year; a health plan that costs $59.95 a month; a “stock analysis alert” to purchase shares in “American Ammunition Inc.” and eight offers to “Refinance NOW!”

As my health improved, I summoned up the courage to face my neglected e-mail. I waded through dozens of offers for Viagra, doctor-approved penile enlargers and pulsating, pornographic videos advertised in Korean. From the postal mailbox, I lugged 15 catalogs and eight refinance offers back into the house.

Wait a minute, I thought. This is a case of mistaken identity. I’m a reluctant consumer; I don’t even like to shop.

But I had, in fact, acted like a consumer. We had refinanced our house, which probably sent our financial information around the world. To save time, I had ordered office supplies and gifts from catalogs and online stores. For these sins, I had been consigned to consumer hell.

By the time I returned to work, I was resigned to my dismal fate. By chance, I had scheduled an interview with consumer activist Jamie Court.

He already knows that corporations have colonized our culture. “They steal more than your money,” Court said. “They take your time, because you’ve got to sort through all those phone messages and e-mails. They steal the ink and paper in your fax machine. To them, you’re not a person; you’re a potential consumer.”

My mood brightened when Court suggested how to resist these corporate thieves. Put your name on the state’s “do not call” list (, he told me. Federal law prohibits junk faxes and allows you to collect at least $500 for each one you receive. (For a sample complaint, see Court’s just-published book, “Corporateering: How
Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom and What You Can Do About It” (Tarcher/Putnam, 2003), moreover, offers many more ways we can take back our time and space, not to mention our privacy.

Will this stop what Court calls “corporateering” — when corporations exceed their traditional role in the marketplace, invade our private lives and compromise our rights to privacy?

Probably not, but I like the idea of joining the resistance, fighting the good fight, and getting $500 for each junk fax I receive.
E-mail Ruth Rosen at [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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