May 28th, 2008 at 01:04am
Apparently Japanese robots can have you arrested for calling them multiple times…
TOKYO (Reuters) – A Japanese man was arrested for calling a food company’s toll-free number 500 times in 16 months because he wanted to hear the woman’s voice on the automated tape, police said on Monday.
The 38-year-old plumber, who was arrested on Sunday, made 3,100 hours worth of free calls to the company, costing it almost 4 million yen (19,500 pounds) in phone bills, a police spokesman in Takasaki, northwest of Tokyo, said.
“He gets excited by the woman’s voice on the guidance tape,” the spokesman said, adding that the voice sounded normal to the detective who was involved in the investigation.
So what is the crime here? A business has a “toll-free” telephone number which effectively means that the business pay for the calls they receive instead of the caller. This is a very common practice, in Australia it is generally used in the form of numbers with a “1800” prefix (usually no cost to the caller) or a “13” prefix (usually at a cost of 25 cents to the caller). These numbers are generally setup to provide some element of convenience to the caller such as an easier to remember number or reduced call cost in the case of a business which expects calls from outside their local area. The cost to the business operating the toll-free number varies depending on factors such as the length of the call and location of the caller.
Most of these numbers are answered by an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, probably best described as a robot which directs your call to a particular person or department depending on the button you press or its (often amusingly bad) understanding of your spoken instructions. The automated messages which you hear from these IVR systems are generally professionally recorded by a voice artist which usually means that the message is well-spoken and the voice is at least remotely appealing…after all, you don’t want potential customers to hang up simply because they can’t stand the voice answering the phone.
As far as I can tell, this man was not harassing any of the human staff, in fact I don’t think he ever spoke to them as he was only interested in listening to the voice on the IVR. This leaves me wondering what he could possibly have done that was illegal. Whilst there are laws against harassing people on the phone by calling them multiple times when they don’t want you to, an IVR not only isn’t human, it’s also not going to be annoyed if somebody wants to keep listening to it.
Perhaps it is illegal to call a toll-free number with the intention of costing the other party money if you have no intention of doing business with them. That would be a very difficult law to write as I’m sure most of us have called a bank or telephone company’s toll free number with the intention of challenging a fee or billing error, which if proven would be a call for the sole intention of costing the other party money, although I suppose it could be argued that discussing an “accounts matter” is “doing business”. In that case I’ll expand on my theory. If you were to call a company to cancel business relationship with them immediately and your account balance was zero, it could be argued that this was a call for the purpose of “cancelling business” rather than “doing business” and as the call cost the company an amount, and a reasonable person would know that the call would cost the business an amount, the call was made with the intention of costing the business some amount of money.
It would make for incredibly bad publicity for the company (eg. a headline of “Man jailed for closing account over the phone” with the company named in the article would not be a good look for the company), but the conviction would stand. I think we can probably rule that out as a law in any sane society.
So what’s left? A law against admiring voices? I’m quite partial to the voice on the IVR in my current workplace, a voice which also happens to be used by the ticket system in many St. George Bank branches. Would I be breaking the law if I sat in a St. George Bank branch all day listening to “Ticket B5 to counter seven”? I doubt it.
I just can’t imagine a plausible law against what this man is accused of doing. If he knew that it was costing the business money to place the calls then I believe that he was ethically in the wrong, but it’s not illegal to be ethically wrong. As far as I can see, the only thing which he could possibly face is a civil lawsuit from the company to reclaim the cost of the calls, in which they would need to prove that:
1. He made the calls for a purpose other than the purpose for which the toll-free number was setup, and
2. He knew that it would cost the company money
From a legal perspective, the whole case sounds very flimsy. I’m not a lawyer, but I think they (the business receiving the calls) would be much better off getting their toll-free number provider to block calls from this man, or just reaching an agreement with the man that they will provide him with a copy of the IVR recordings on the condition that he does not call them again. I’m sure that the man would be happy with a copy of the IVR recordings as they would be of a higher quality than what he hears on the phone, and may even include some recordings he might not normally hear on the main menu.
I just hope that the police didn’t spend much time on this investigation. It seems like an amazing waste of police time and taxpayers’ funds to me.
Entry Filed under: Bizarreness