Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/25/2011 9:46:38 AM ET 2011-01-25T14:46:38

Citizens unhappy about government telephone health surveys are reportedly slamming down phones, breaking out boat horns and resorting to profanity to stop what they say are repeated, aggressive calls from a pushy federal contractor.

Hundreds of people have posted online pleas begging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remove their phone numbers from lists used by the National Opinion Research Center, or NORC, which is paid by the agency to conduct surveys on topics including immunizations and influenza.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

“This number keeps calling us, please tell them to STOP, we are registered on the DO NOT CALL LIST,” a man identified as Phillip Richards wrote last fall on the site www.800notes.com, which has logged 282 reports, mostly complaints, about phone number 312-201-4623.

Even normally polite people such as 80-year-old Clarence J. McKinney of Hamilton, Ohio, say they’ve been driven to distraction by as many as 15 calls in a row to cell phones and unlisted land line numbers.

“I was annoyed by them,” said McKinney, reached by phone, who received daily calls for about two weeks in December. “I hung up on her. I just got so tired of it. If they get somebody on the line that indicates they don’t want to be bothered, they ought to stop.”

Unfortunate, but rare
CDC and NORC officials say complaints about survey calls are unfortunate, but rare. Overall, they’re only a fraction of at least 1 million telephone calls and 100,000 interviews that NORC conducts on behalf of CDC each year. They say random-digit-dialing and phone interviews are the only way to get accurate, up-to-date information in a nation of nearly 312 million people.

“When you do this volume of calls, you’re going to find people who don’t want to be bothered,” said Jim Singleton, chief of the assessment branch for CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“Unfortunately, there’s not other ways we can get that information other than reaching out to the public,” he added.

CDC is one of several agencies that hire NORC, based at the University of Chicago, to conduct population-wide studies on critical issues. Right now, for instance, NORC is fulfilling a $146 million contract for the National Immunization Survey, which collects current data on vaccinations in children.

NORC maintains a staff of about 650 surveyors who make between $8.50 and $15.50 an hour. They are trained to be both polite and persistent, said Missy Koppelman, NORC’s executive vice president for operations and technology.

“We use standard, accepted social science interviewing techniques,” said Koppelman, who also directs the National Immunization Survey. “People can certainly tell us that they want to take their phone numbers off the calling list.”

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

About 80 percent of eligible participants agree to be surveyed, and about 20 percent decline, Koppelman said. In the industry, that’s considered a good response, according to research experts at the University of Texas at Austin.

“People understand that when we’re calling about the flu and immunization that the data is used to help the government to make decisions and save lives,” Koppelman said.

'If you insist on annoying me, I shall return the favor.'
But for those who say they’ve been harassed, such high-minded principles take a backseat to sheer annoyance. Complaints about the NORC number are fierce on www.800notes.com, one of several sites that track unwanted calls.

“It’s the one that’s been around for more than two years and the number of complaints is growing steadily,” said Julia Forte, who runs the site. Reports are also posted on sites such as www.namethatnumber.netand http://whocallsme.com.

They include rants such as this note posted by a writer identified only as “Me Chelle”:

“Dear NORC. I have asked you 4 times to stop calling my home. I have also told you I don’t have children.

"Now, I’m going to start to give you false information and start to tie up your employees by talking to them about my day, and making up children I don’t actually have. I will make up false immunization records, and talking about all of the fake places they go to school, and the false diseases they’ve had.

"If you insist on annoying me, I shall return the favor.”

Others resort to less sophisticated responses. On Oct. 22, writer “Reality” declared “I just blew my boat horn into the phone and they hung up on me.” On Aug. 4, another writer posted: “I decided to answer the phone and say every dirty word I could think of.”

Several recipients were irate about getting calls because they’ve signed up with the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry. However, government researchers, like other surveyors, are exempt from the registry’s provisions because they are not offering to sell anything to consumers.

Officials from CDC and NORC insist that people need only ask to be added to the no-call list. If the calls don’t stop immediately, it may be because there’s a lag time from the time a call comes in until NORC can flag the number, Singleton said.

Koppelman noted that people have to ask directly, however.

“If people say, ‘I’m busy right now,’ we’ll certainly call at a different time,” she said. “When they say they’re busy, we think, ‘Oh, you’re interested in talking to us.’”

Toll-free number stops calls
Both CDC and NORC have toll-free numbers where people can request not to be called. At NORC, it’s 1-866-999-3340. At CDC, it’s 1-800-223-8118, and callers should cite protocol #2000-17. More information on the National Immunization Survey is also available on the CDC site.

Critics of the survey calls may be vocal, but they’re not the majority, Singleton insists. Many people actually agree to be interviewed out of a sense of civic responsibility.

“You call and you’re talking to a mom with a baby in her arms, you can hear it, she’s cooking dinner and she’s sticking through this whole 20-minute interview,” Singleton said. “I’m just really grateful they do that.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments