OPINION: Call-block app long overdue

Some months ago, I received a call on my mobile. A pre-recorded voice warned me: “Attention! Your new car warranty expires soon!” and urged me to press “1” to connect with a representative. Oddly, I don’t own a new car. Or a car, for that matter. Since I’d been receiving and ignoring calls from the number five or six times daily, I thought I’d take them up on the offer of “connecting.”

After climbing up one side and down the other of a clearly indifferent telemarketer – who hung up when I demanded to speak with a supervisor – I thought I’d made my point. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang again.

Exasperated, I called my provider, and was astonished to learn there was no way to block a phone number from calling my account. “You’ll have to call the police,” a customer service rep told me. (I did, and was lucky to get an officer who loathed telemarketers, especially of the deceptive kind. I haven’t had a call since.)

I’ve also known people driven to distraction by harassing phone calls, arriving with such frequency as to render their cell phones useless.

So I was thrilled to see that First Orion Corp., based in Conway, Ark. (home of American Idol winner Chris Allen), has launched a call-blocking application for the BlackBerry in Canada, about three weeks after its American launch. PrivacyStar is integrated with a Web portal; numbers can be blocked on the phone or online, and will automatically synchronize. There’s other functionality – it will look up numbers not in the device’s contact list, acting as a call display function, and will even dig up who’s behind a 1-800 number – but it’s the call-blocking functionality that’s the real gift to mobile users. Especially since the carriers don’t have the will to do it for their own customers.

There’s more to it, though. While calls from blocked numbers don’t reach the phone, they are logged. When you’ve had enough, a single click formats and sends a complaint to the CRTC. In the case of criminally harassing phone calls, the call report can be printed and handed over to the police. The service also blocks and logs anonymous calls.

“It’s really our first step into what we call the privacy ecosystem,” Jeff Stalnaker, First Orion’s president, said in an interview. The company plans to roll out versions soon for other smart phone operating systems. It’s Step 3 in the strategy that has me holding my breath in anticipation.

“A key strategy for us is to be in the network,” Stalnaker said. “That is absolutely our end game.”

First Orion has been in discussions with carriers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the U.K. about offering PrivacyStar as a value-added service for their customers.

“That’s my strong suit and where my background comes into the equation,” said CEO and founder Keith Fotta. Fotta has testified in several states on telephone privacy issues; his other company, Gryphon Networks Corp., markets software to help telemarketers comply with do-not-call lists.

Most carriers have had call-blocking functionality, Fotta said, “but the take-up rate has always been zero” because of the complexity and expense.

The company also plans to offer an anti-fraud service, blocking calls that regulatory authorities say have been connected with fraudulent telemarketing activity. And within the next 45 days, text-message-blocking functionality will also be available.

Fotta anticipates announcing deals with carriers by the second quarter of this year.

Attention carriers: If this service lives up to its billing, I will vote with my feet. If another provider offers this service and mine doesn’t respond in kind within 30 days, I will switch, contract or no. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this strongly.

If you’re a BlackBerry user and can’t wait, download PrivacyStar from the Research in Motion’s BlackBerry AppWorld and subscribe to the service for $2.99 a month.

 



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