By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
With almost half of us now choosing to be ex-directory, it seems Britons just don't want to be called at home.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said: "The telephone is an irresistible intruder in time or place."
However much we know that it's likely to be someone selling double glazing, life insurance or unwanted mobile phones, it is difficult to ignore a ringing phone.
But we are more jealous of our privacy than ever. With Britain's much-discussed long-hours culture, there is a sense that workers' few hours at home are sacrosanct. Having slaved all day, we want at least one sphere where we can defend ourselves from intrusion and observation.
Perhaps this is why, according to British Telecom, 48% of all landline users, including non-BT customers, are ex-directory. And the figure has been climbing steadily. Add to that Britain's legion of mobile phone users, virtually all of whom are not listed on any directory, and you have a nation that wants to be left alone.
The situation is different in other countries, in both cost and take-up. To take one phone company in the US, AT and T, being unlisted costs anything between 14 cents and US$2.95, depending on state legislation. In Australia, another major firm, Telstra, had fewer than a fifth of its customers unlisted in 2000.
In Britain, a country where many people no longer know their next door neighbour, it seems reasonable to make it harder for complete strangers to track you down.
And there are many professions where because of contact with potentially unstable members of the public, considering disappearing from the listings would be advisable.
If you are a criminal lawyer, judge, social worker, journalist, estate agent, or a host of other professions who might have made enemies during the course of your work, not "being in the book" is a must. The Police Federation, for instance, advises officers working in some specialist or more risky roles to consider it.
Jane and her husband are both therapists who work in London and always make sure they are ex-directory.
"We are ex-directory because of the client group we work with," she says. "My husband works with people with severe mental health difficulties or personality disorders. Some of my clients are very vulnerable.
"We wanted to keep our professional life and our home life separate. And there had been a threat made before we went ex-directory."
For Rebecca Moy, the reasons for going ex-directory were far more personal.
HOW TO VANISH
Opt out of edited electoral roll
Tick boxes to stop third parties getting info
Join Telephone Preference Service
"I was being harassed by a work colleague. He was calling me on my mobile and on my landline. Sometimes it would happen when I was off sick.
"It was a friendship that turned into something that I wasn't wanting. He had my number because we were friends.
"It all got really stressful. I wasn't answering. I didn't know what it was, him or a marketing company. People are getting bombarded. I changed my mobile number and when I moved to my new address that was ex-directory. It is not just down to that experience. You are taking control of who contacts you.
"The people I want to contact me, I would give them my number. Why would I want anyone else to contact me?
But discounting people who are worried about being tracked down and either harangued or harmed, there is also the compelling motivation of tackling the junk calls of the direct marketer.
"Hello, this is Maria from the Cancun Holiday Centre" is as dreaded as anything to most people, and a reason to disappear from the book. But this is one area where being ex-directory is only a very small part of the privacy armoury.
Ceri Stanaway, senior researcher for Consumer magazine Which? says: "Unfortunately, being ex-directory doesn't completely stop companies getting hold of your number, but there are steps you can take to reduce the number of calls you receive."
People are advised to sign up to the Telephone Preference Service and to make sure they indicate on all forms that they do not want to be contacted by third parties. Even this will not stop those unscrupulous or foreign firms, or those using random numbers instead of operating from a list.
And if people really want to avoid being tracked down, they should look to the electoral roll. Registering on the electoral roll is compulsory, but since 2001 you can at least stop the hoi polloi finding out easily where you live through electronic databases.
Electors are given the option of appearing only on the full list and disappearing from the edited list that many councils sell to junk mailers. In person it is still possible to see the full list, but any searchable electronic versions of the full list are available only to the authorities, to credit agencies, and to the political parties.
Unfortunately, this is one source of unwanted intrusion that you will not be able to cut out.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
My boss (who is famous) is ex-directory, and from his point of view, I can see the advantages. However, I also have a mental ex-boyfriend who knows I won't pick up if I see it's him, so he calls withholding his number. This leaves me with a very awkward situation when I see "anonymous". I've had my mobile number for over 10 years and had to pay for it - so don't want to have to change it, but now can't differentiate between my boss and my ex. It makes life very difficult...
Kate, London, UK
I used to work in the telecoms industry, and have had first hand experience of the horrors of these call centres. TPS (and FPS) registration is very effective at reducing the number of unwanted calls, particularly from the larger firms who all abide by the rules. However one is still likely to get calls from small firms who are either unaware of TPS rulings, or unwilling to part with the £7500 per year required to access it.
Since you need the caller's full name, company name, company address and telephone number to raise a complaint, call centre staff are simply trained to hang up when these details are requested and move on to the next call.
Personally I think the witholding or manipulation of CLI should be banned. Why shouldn't every phonecall be traceable? The carriers have this information for routing and billing, they should pass it on to us verbatim...
Dan Grenfell, Southampton, UK
I'm ex-directory (anyone who may need my number has it, so why give it to anyone else?), but when I get marketing calls, I look upon it as an opportunity to unwind: "Hi, this is Julia from-" "Julia! Hi! Oh wow, how're you doing? God, it's been ages - you remember me, don't you?" Cue much fun as Julia tries to work out where you might know her from!
Baz, Luton, UK
Unfortunately I work in telesales at the moment cold calling companies. Being ex directory makes little difference, we work from different databases. We do attempt to adhere to the TPS but its not always possible, someone can always slip through the gaps. This can be used to your advantage, as an operator ive no idea if you are or arn't on the TPS. If anyone says that their on the TPS you get off the phone as quickly and politely as possible, remove their phone number from the database and tick all the DoNotSolicit boxes you can find.
As has been mentioned, the calls are from anonymous number so blocking those works although the people phoning on behalf of orange offering mobile upgrades who called me three times in a day were on real numbers so its not surefire. The other thing worth bearing in mind is that the person you are talking to is just doing his job and probably dosnt like it very much. They are also are the ones responsible for preventing you being called again, if your abusive and/or rude theyre unlikely to strike you from the database and may go as far as making sure you get called again repeatedly.
telesales worker, UK
Phone book? They still have phone books? Quaint, when you think about it.
Phone book? HA! Just wait until Tony's National Identity Register goes on line (if it ever does) - see how long it is before information on that gets sold to telesales companies. Anyone want to bet that you will have to put your phone numbers on the register?
Captain Beaky, London, UK
I hate receiving nuisence telephone calls - they always seems to know when I'm settling down for a good read in the bath, or turning on Eastenders. However, what is worse is receiving such calls for your partner when he has died. I then found a free service called The bereavement register, which you sign up your deceased family member or friend to and it removes the name and address of the indivdual from mailing lists, so you don't get distressed by junk mail/calls
Veronica Buckle, London
A while ago i decided to make a sport out of all these people who cold call me. The aim of the game was to extract as much personal information from the caller as was possible before they hung up on you. I then published anything i was told on my blog.
Richard, Bath UK
A very long time ago, I worked for a short time at a double glazing company, doing telephone sales. At the start of each session we would all be given a page torn at random from the phone book and would work our way down it. I was always surprised that anyone said yes to a sales visit - it was about 1 an hour on average! But needless to say I've been ex-directory ever since.
In response to Keiths comments about having an off switch on his doorbell, does he also have an off switch on people knocking on the door? And why would estate agents get enemies and need to be ex-directory?
Simon Fisher, Bedford, England
I was once a telemarketer (needed the very good money. A simple and polite request to have your number removed from the list should work - even in the comapny I used to work for..... Just remember, these people need their jobs as much as you need yours. It is the employer who decides who gets called not the employee, so stop treating them like scum, and they may be more pleasant back. (I haven't been a telemarketer for two years).
Despite being on TPS list, I do get some marketing calls. I usually ask the caller if he/she can call me at a time convenient to me, usually odd hours(e.g., exactly at 2:47 am etc). The caller agrees but never calls again. Works well for me.
Shamsher Khan, Bedfont, Feltham, UK
I am certainly no "recluse", but I do value my peace and quiet when at home. My attitude is that if somebody wants to speak to me in my home then they must comply with my terms. Friends and those who have legitimate business with me are given my number without hesitation - others should have no business in bothering me. My job also involves a certain degree of shift-work and rules-enforcement with the public. This alone, I feel, is a very good reason to be unlisted, even before factoring in other things.
Jason Boynton-Lee, Southampton area, UK
It appears that political parties aren't supposed to call you either, if you're TPS-listed, according to a recent Information Commissioner ruling. It should be a matter of common sense anyway - "Let's call someone who's specifically said they don't like being called, that'll get us some votes."
Chris Morris, Durham, UK
Just to point out blocking anonymous calls will block calls from most hospitals and Drs' surgerys.
Ian , Beds
If you choose to be ex-directory, you will never know what calls people may have wished to make to you. You cannot always guess which friends and acquaintances may wish to contact you unexpectedly. An elderly relative in London answered the phone to me and then seemed to drop the phone, leaving the phone line permanently engaged. I was concerned in case she had fallen. I tried to phone her neighbour, who I do not know very well, but I am sure would have been willing to call round to check up on her, but the neighbour was ex-directory. Fortunately my relative is a regular churchgoer and her vicar was not ex-directory.
Kay Sanders, Huddersfield, UK
To Jim Howes (and all). Good on you for having CLIP (CLI Presentation)! You might also consider ACR (Anonymous Call Rejection) - It does the same thing for you automatically so the phone does not even ring unless it has a valid CLI (or is an emergency operator etc.)
Jim, Swindon, UK
I never wanted to go ex-directory, but it very much seems to be the default option. Unless the person who processes your data can be bothered, you end up being ex-directory.
Tim Temmink, London
We are registered with the TPS and have found it to be superb. We do still get some mumblers from Mumbai but usually we make them hang up real quick when we start to demand to know their full name and the company they work for. "Do you know we are registered with the TPS and this call is illegal" we demand. "What is your name?" Repeat this a few times and they have all so far quickly hung up. They don't like it up em!
Hedley Phillips, Surrey
Isn't the debate twisted the wrong way? 48% of people are choosing to be ex-directory, add to that the typically apathetic people who didn't bother to opt for it, and the majority want privacy. Make people opt to be in the directory, then you'll find out just how popular an idea it is.
Jamie, Manchester, UK
I have a hands free and when the house phone rings I just press the button and wait quietly untill the caller speaks. If I want to talk then I answer the callers greeting if not then I just turn down the volume and dont hang up so that the caller pays for the call. If I feel like annoying the caller I pretend that I am deaf and keep asking them to repeat what they just said and beleive me they do get sick. I find this little bit of fun stops me getting annoyed at nuisance calls.
I work as a technology consultant and I have used the new Voice Over IP (VOIP) phone services for almost two years now. I haven't had a single junk call on my VOIP lines because these numbers are not published in the phone book like a 'true' BT land-line is.
Paul Dettman, London, UK
A friend received a sales call and the salesman wouldn't take no for an answer. I took the phone off her and said to the salesman "she's busy right now, give me your home number and I'll get her to ring you tonight around 9". He said he couldn't give me his home number and I replied harshly "WHY, DON'T YOU LIKE BEING RUNG AT HOME ?"
I am ex directory. BT take advantage of this and their own call centre keep calling to sell things......I just tell them I am the baby sitter and hang up
Val Riley, UK
The TPS works, for the most part, for landlines. However many mobile phone companies do not seem to believe (falsely) that it applies to them. My mobile is TPS registered, and has been for many years, yet I keep getting 'You are eligible for an upgrade' calls almost every week.
The other major problem with the TPS is that it has no power overseas, and with the cost of international calling dropping through the floor, it becomes cost-effective for companies to annoy us from any part of the world.
So I have caller ID. If it says 'international' or 'withheld' it does not get answered.
Jim Howes, Portsmouth, UK
I have actually gone a stage further than this and installed a switch on my front door bell, which is normally in the 'off' position. My friends know that if they want to visit, they call my mobile when they are on their way and I will switch on the door bell. Any stranger who wishes to speak to me is welcome to write a letter.
Keith Willis, Bristol, UK
My father needed to be ex-directory many, many years ago because of his then job. You had to get a letter from a 'responsible person' to justify it to the General Post Office in those days!
Jim Price, Kenilworth
It is also time that BT made ACR (Anon call reject) FOC (free of charge) - how do they justify the charge?
graham sedgley, Market Drayton, Shopshire.
Becoming ex-directory if you aren't already probably won't stop the sales calls. I did a (grim!) summer job as a student, cold calling for a telecoms company, and they used directories that were a few years old. These days, your information is held on so many CD roms and lists that it will stick round for many years, so the best thing to do is join the TPS or change your number and then go ex directory.
I think that being ex-directory defeats the object of the phone.
Mark Edmonds, Rugby UK
If you get an unwanted cold-caller, just put on your huskiest voice and ask them to describe what underwear they're wearing. I'll bet they hang up before you do..
Gareth, Oswestry, UK
Change your name to Smith like me. Virtual anonymity is guaranteed, though those who really need to find me can still do so.
Matthew Smith, Manchester, UK
I run a small web design agency and at one point was getting 2 or 3 phone calls a day from India selling IT outsourcing (programming, design etc). I've now made my website inaccessible from India. Result zero sales calls day - hooray peace at last....
Is there any way of stopping unsolicited companies from calling your mobile? I could not be more annoyed by people calling to offer me new contracts, and machines dialling my number then hanging up when I answer. I assumed perhaps that in signing up for various things my details had been passed along in that manner, and for that I was annoyed at myself for allowing these people to contact me. However, my mother has never once signed up for anything listing her mobile number, so I am led to believe that our phone company is selling our details. I am pretty bitter.
Given that a telephone directory is used mainly by nuisance callers, why be listed in it? I have double glazing and a kitchen and don't want to call a premium rate number to enter a competition with senseless prizes.
David James, Surrey, UK
When you work in public service, on the front line with the public, where you are a well known face AND name, it is important to be able to retain some privacy. It's easy for someone with an issue to find you in the directory. That's why I (as well as many of my colleagues) am ex-directory. Personal experience (wait till you get a stalker!) shows me that I cannot afford to subject my family to that pressure just because of my job.
Myself and my husband are opted out of everything we possibly can! Electoral roll, ex-directory, mailing/telephone/fax/email preference service - you name it! If I need a holiday, I know where to look; if I need double glazing, I know where to look. If I think I'm paying to much for my utilities, I know where to research my options.
Lucy Mitchell, Chelmsford, UK
I especially love the comments by people prefering to remain anonymous who have then given their full name and town in this comments section!
Just shout every cuss word you know down that phone when cold called. It makes them go away fast, feels great, and is an effective way to relax when coming home from work.
I find a nice glass of Chardonnay afterwards rounds off the whole wind-down experience.
Chris Bourtel, Luton, UK
In an age where one can type a phone number into Google and instantly get a map to the phone subscriber's home, listing your number in the directory is a privacy/security risk.
Sam, Los Angeles, CA
It is unfortunate so many have gone ex-directory because when you need to check postcodes or re-direct badly addressed letters (which is very common) the online directory is a great way to get addresses. Those who go ex-directory are neeedlessly making themselves hard to locate.
Des, Somewhere in London (shhhhhh !)
Increasingly sales calls are coming from abroad, and Choose to Refuse does not block these calls. It is very annoying if you are busy and you get some idiot selling some rubbish or asking about your private life. I would happly pay for a Choose to Explode button.
As Jerry Seinfeld said in one episode if you are cold called, ask what time they finish work and eat dinner at home so you can call them back then with an answer ....
I agree with Graham Sedgley (anonymous call reject should be free) - Virtually all marketing calls, and the prank-calls we were getting were from with-held numbers. Having these calls automatically rejected should be available to everyone for free - It's disgraceful that BT makes an ongoing profit (£12 per quarter) just for pressing a button on a computer terminal once.
Russ James, Derby, GB
I have found that cold callers can be stopped in their tracks if you mention how difficult it has been trying to buy things or get credit since you were made bankrupt! I have not but they do not know that.
Peter Davies, Bridgend, Wales
What about 192.com. Even if you request ex-directory listing you can still appear on that. There are groups of activists that use this site to target people. Also the fact that local councils are able to use even an edited version of the electoral roll as a revenue generator is abhorrent.
Mike , Hitchin, Hertfordshire
I think you and/or BT have reached the wrong conclusion. It's not that people don't want to be called at home. Why would I want to be called by anyone who doesn't know me, or at least someone who doesn't know a friend of mine well enough to ask for my phone number? I've kept the same mobile number for the last 10 years just so that people can contact me easily and hundreds of people know that number, but I do not see the point in having it listed in a directory.
Peter Claydon, Bath
Cold call at dinner? Never admit that you are the caller. Say you will fetch him/her and leave the phone off the hook.
For calls at weekends a quick religious conversion always helps. A tirade about doing business on the Sabbath is always fun.
I assume most people who "go" ex directory are, like the rest of us fed up with nuisance calls, if everyone was forced to send their number or at least an identifying code when calling someone, we would then have an informed choice to answer or not (caller display permitting). Being able to find out who has called us gives us the power to act. I feel very strongly that if someone is calling my number I have the right to know who they are, and therefore decide if I want to talk to them, and if people don't like it don't call me!
I'm ex directory. its more effective than the telephone preference service in cutting sales calls. The odd sales calls you still receive are usually so poor quality salesmen than you can easily increase their frustration level so they won't stick in the job long.
Michael Shaw, Sheffield, UK
We went ex-directory because of the intrusive marketing calls. At one point some marketer was using an electronic dialer and we were getting upward of 20 calls a day that were hanging up when we picked up the phone. It drove us nuts. I lived in Australia for a number of years and never receiced a marketing call at home.
Chris Hurst, Dartford UK
I went ex directory because it is the only way of stopping people calling me to sell me stuff.I tried the phone preference system and it doesn't work very well.After abusive phone calls from a local gym trying pressure selling to get me to buy membership I decided enough was enough.No-one bothers me now at all..I recommend going ex-directory to all my friends.
Lee Brown, Thornhill UK
Get Caller ID and hey presto! - it's very easy to ignore that ringing 'phone - especially if it's my Mother-in-Law!
The main driver behind the increase in ex-directory numbers is the incessant, annoying and pointless marketing calls that are made, usually just when you're about to sit down to dinner. I've yet to meet anyone who has ever made a purchasing decision on the back of one of these calls - why do they bother?
Steve Knowlson, Bristol
I registered with the TPS a couple of years ago, and whilst it hasn't totally eliminated the number of cold calls I receive, the number I receive has dropped dramatically. As a bonus, I get to hear the caller squirm when I mention that I'm registered.
Deborah, Surrey, UK
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