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When It Comes to Phone Privacy, More People Are Willing to Pay

At her law office, Ame D. Vaughan keeps a separate phone--"the Drew hot line"--so her fiance can call her. She has an 800 number just so her parents can call for free. At home, she has a fax line as well as a talk line. And she never goes anywhere without her mobile phone.

These lines have something in common besides Vaughan: They’re all unlisted. Only her office phone is in the book.

With their homes shrouded in foliage and their back yards walled, Californians have always been enamored of privacy. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they increasingly keep their phone numbers secret.

The amazing thing is how secret.

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At nearly 60%, the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area has a greater proportion of unlisted residences than anyplace else in America, according to Survey Sampling Inc., which generates random phone numbers to help pollsters overcome this inconvenient development.

In fact, the company says, 11 of the 12 most unlisted big cities in America are in California, the exception being that neo-Golden Stater, Las Vegas. And all are more than half unlisted. The entire country is only 28.2% unlisted, up from 21.8% in 1984.

The California figures are probably a little exaggerated; we move a lot, and so more of us fall between phone books for awhile. Still, Californians probably lead the nation in unlisted phone numbers.

And the trend clearly is up. Pacific Bell says unlisted numbers among its customers are up 44% since 1977, but its absolute data understates unlisted numbers by lumping businesses and homes together. GTE, which serves such affluent communities as Malibu and Bel-Air, says 55% of its California residential customers are unlisted.

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Businesses ignore this phenomenon at their peril. Among other things, an unlisted phone is a sign of rebellion against the onslaught of intrusions posed by everyday life. The data implies that it’s going to get harder and harder to make money by annoying Californians.

But there’s also big potential. If you want to get rich around here, try selling privacy. Consider Private Lines Inc. of Beverly Hills. Call one of their 900 numbers and, for $2 a minute domestically or $5 internationally, you get a new dial tone that lets you call anywhere in the world, impervious to caller identification devices.

Private Lines itself keeps no records of calls, which then become almost impossible to trace, says Chairman Marvin Rudnick, who’s already bought a new Lincoln.

Why are Californians so increasingly unlisted? One reason is telemarketing. Spending on this has surged to $60 billion a year from $1 billion 10 years ago. The resulting sales approach half a trillion dollars.

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“People are trying to get away from this deluge of calls,” says James E. Katz, a sociologist at BellCore, the research consortium of the Baby Bells, who adds that unlisting avails little for this purpose, thanks to random digit sampling.

“In about seven years, we’re going to get more junk calls than personal calls, just as we do with junk mail,” says Bob Bulmash of Private Citizen, a consumer group in Napierville, Ill.

For $20 a year, Bulmash registers people who hate “junk calls.” He sends this registry to every telemarketer he can find, warning that a call to anyone registered constitutes acceptance of a contract requiring a $100 fee per call.

People also unlist their phones to avoid debt collectors, ex-lovers and maniacs.

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“California probably has the highest incidence of obscene phone calls per capita,” says Katz, who did a national survey of this. “As a sociologist, I see a real lowering of the barriers to behavior.”

Oddly, another big reason for the unlisting of California is government policy. Pacific Bell spokesman Michael Runzler says rates for being unlisted are set by the various state public utilities commissions. Californians pay just 30 cents a month to be unlisted, less than residents of any other state, he says. Arizona is $1.05, New York is $1.88, and Idaho is $4.

Being unlisted has long appealed to rich people and celebrities, for whom a few dollars are meaningless, but Katz says it has cachet for everyone. In fact, experts say, the unlisted tend to be quite affluent or quite poor, and under 40 years old.

The implications of all this for business could be vast. In the years ahead, privacy is likely to grow as an issue, and more legislation is almost a certainty. Unsophisticated businesses will have more trouble reaching potential customers.

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But sophisticated ones will gain. Katz says smart companies may use privacy as a marketing tool, perhaps promising to keep customer numbers confidential.

And technology that affords privacy is likely to sell like cheap housing, especially in California, where Luddism is a rare disorder indeed. Californians already are likelier to have answering machines than other Americans.

None of this is lost on phone companies such as Pacific Bell. It already proposes a series of new services, including Caller ID (to flash a caller’s number on a small screen by your phone), Caller ID blocking (to foil the service) and a kind of telecommunications banishment whereby you can tell your phone never to accept any calls from a given number.

Katz himself has patented a device that allows callers to hang up on a recording while on hold. When the usual taped advertisement comes to an end, the phone rings an “all-clear.”

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So is Katz unlisted? No comment. “I have taken steps to protect my privacy,” he says coyly.

Most Unlisted U.S. Cities California is home to 11 of the 12 U.S. cities with the highest proportion of unlisted phone numbers.

Percent Metro area unlisted Los Angeles-Long Beach 59.9 Las Vegas, Nev. 58.3 Oakland 58.2 Fresno 58.0 San Jose 56.4 Sacramento 53.2 Riverside-San Bernardino 52.3 San Francisco 52.0 San Diego 51.6 Oxnard-Ventura 51.5 Bakersfield 51.4 Anaheim-Santa Ana 50.8


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