Business

Managing junk mail, phone trees

Ideally, consumer interaction with companies would always be calm and businesslike. But too often when problems arise from a purchase, those interactions become emotionally charged and quickly deteriorate into frustrated screams, curses and tears. It becomes personal. Some 56 percent of U.S. consumers admitted losing their tempers with a customer service professional, according to the American Express 2011 Global Customer Service Barometer.

"People feel like their voice isn't being heard, that they have no ability to take on these big corporations," said Chicago Tribune consumer watchdog columnist Jon Yates, author of What's Your Problem? Cut Through Red Tape, Challenge the System, and Get Your Money Back. "Every time they get rejected or neglected, it does become personal. ... Part of it is the frustration of actually getting through to a human being." Here are a few of the most emotionally charged consumer topics and what to do about them.DIALING A HUMAN

A survey by Consumer Reports found 71 percent of respondents were "extremely irritated" when they couldn't reach a human on the phone. Two-thirds said they hung up the phone without getting their issue resolved.

Perhaps nothing ticks off consumers quicker than the implication that their problem matters so little they should talk to a machine instead of a person.

But there are ways to navigate corporate phone trees or avoid them. Several Web sites, including Gethuman.com and Dialahuman.com, give advice on reaching specific companies, providing phone numbers and secret strategies to bypass their automated phone systems and get to real people. LucyPhone.com promises to place the call to a company for you, wait on hold and ring your phone when a live representative is on the line.

Phone systems vary, but common tactics for navigating a phone tree include staying silent and refusing to respond to the system's voice prompts or, instead, start speaking gibberish.

The old trick of dialing zero for an operator doesn't work today as well as it once did, Yates said.

Another strategy involves a bit of misdirection. Try funneling yourself into the departments for new customers or bill collections. When you get through, ask to be transferred to the department you really want.

Similarly, conduct an Internet search to find a phone number for the company's headquarters offices and call there. The hope is some bigwig can help you or at least you'll be transferred directly to a customer service agent.

And if you reach an overseas call center and can't understand a customer service agent, ask to be transferred to a U.S. call center. Many large companies have them.DEBT COLLECTORS

Owing money can be a source of guilt, embarrassment and frustration, which can lead to emotional confrontations with debt collectors. Collectors often use tactics that capitalize on raw emotions to get you to pay, said Linda Sherry, national priorities director for advocacy group Consumer Action.

"These people earn money based on what they can get out of you," she said.

But you have rights. The collections business is governed by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. A collector cannot harass you by threatening you, cursing, lying or calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless you agree to it.

And collectors may not contact you at work if you tell them you're not allowed to get calls there. They can't say you'll be arrested if you don't pay. Other than to get location information about you, a debt collector generally is not allowed to discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse or your attorney. To find out more about the law, go to Tinyurl.com/ftc-fdcpa.

And don't pay debts you don't owe. The Federal Trade Commission told recently of a scam involving collectors who try to harass people into paying debts they don't owe. If you get such a call, ask for a written "validation notice" telling you how much you owe. A legitimate collector must provide it within five days. The notice also must include the creditor's name and how to proceed if you dispute the debt.

If you have a problem with a collector, contact the FTC, at Ftc.gov, or the Kentucky attorney general's consumer protection office at Ag.ky.gov/civil/consumerprotection. Sometimes you might need to hire an attorney, Sherry said.JUNK MAIL

Some consumers become infuriated at the unwanted junk mail that fills their mailboxes, both physical and electronic ones. But there are some ways to stop intrusive advertising.

To halt prescreened offers of credit and insurance, begin online at Optoutprescreen.com. To "opt out" permanently, you must return a signed form, which will be provided after you initiate the online request. You also may call 1-888-567-8688.

To stop unwanted telemarketing calls, register your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry at Donotcall.gov or call 1-888-382-1222.

To stop unwanted junk mail for five years, contact the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service at Dmachoice.org or mail your request with a $1 processing fee to DMAchoice, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, N.Y. 10512.

To cut down on email advertising, you may register at Dmachoice.org to stop commercial email for six years from marketers that adhere to the group's Email Preference Service. You also can check the bottom of unwanted emails for an "unsubscribe" option. However, it's best to unsubscribe from only companies you have heard of, otherwise you're just letting a spammer know your email address goes to a real person.

When ordering online, look for a check box during virtual checkout that allows the retailer to send you marketing messages, and uncheck it. To complain about solicitations, go to Ftc.gov or call 1-877-383-4357.

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