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State's new contact tracers have a problem: A lot of people don't answer their phone calls, thinking they're junk calls

WBUR reports on the beginning of the state's contact-tracing system, which aims to dampen the spread of Covid-19 by contacting the people people who test positive have had contact with.

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Guilty.

(Edit: Of ignoring calls from unfamiliar numbers. Hopefully I haven't ignored a contact tracing call.)

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That's what happens when you use an 857 number.

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When I dumped my landline and got a smart phone, they gave me an 857 number because "West Roxbury is not part of Boston" it's a "town west of Boston". I asked for documentation of that so I could get 25 years of property tax back from Boston.

long story short, I end up keeping the 857 number

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I don't know what either of you was thinking, since 857 definitely includes Boston.

Edit - the article refers to 857 and 833 as "prefixes". What's a prefix? I assumed area code, since I'm familiar with 857 numbers (though I don't think I've ever had to deal with an 833 number). The only other possibility is that they meant "exchange".

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The original post I had was incorrect, and has been reposted below. Thanks for catching this, JJ.

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... but not area code. At least if sticking to the technical definitions.

See North American Numbering Plan

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Thanks, JJ. See my entry below...this is what happens when I get way ahead of myself.

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Back in the stone age, when we only dialed seven numbers for local calls, the prefix was the first three digits. Usually everyone in the neighborhood had the same prefix, or sometimes a couple.

If you wanted to call long distance, then you had to do the 1+ (or 0+ to go through an operator to call collect - I can explain that too ;) ) and then the three digit area code, the prefix, and the last four numbers.

So I don't know if they mean these prefixes within a local area code or as area codes themselves. Anyone get one of these calls?

Also, add me to the list of someone who doesn't answer calls from any unknown number, whether on my land line or mobile. And even if I do, I often decide I don't want to be interrupted and rely on them leaving me a voice mail. Or texting.

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There was a list in the front of large books called 'telephone books'. They would list the exchange numbers for the state. It was a list of 'office codes'.
So, the area code was added on, as a prefix, then there was an 'office' code, like 825 for Dorchester. In Rhode Island, with their single area code, until a few years ago, you could dial five (yup) numbers if you were in the same office code.
When we developed a need for more numbers, they came up with the overlays. Then the accursed cellphones. It was at that point that nobody knew where the hell anyone lived.

I don't answer unless it shows up as someone I know. I figure if it's important, they'll leave a message.
They don't like that? Should have stopped the 2-3 spam calls I get a day.

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857 is an overlay area code of 617, which was implemented when 617 nearly ran out of phone exchanges due to cellphones and fax machines. Similarly, 774 is an overlay of 508, 339 an overlay of 781, and 351 is an overlay of 978.

413 is the only area code in Massachusetts not requiring an overlay, and does not plan to run out of codes.

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The problem isn't the proliferation of cell phones. The overlay mania started back in the 90s, when competitive local phone companies started being formed. Due to inflexibility in the phone number assignment process, minimum blocks of 10,000 numbers had to be assigned to each phone company in each town they served. That's what caused area codes to fill up.

In theory this problem has been solved, since everyone paid a surcharge for a while to fund number portability -- any number could be assigned to any phone company, and you were supposed to be able to keep your number if you changed providers. But I'm not sure if it worked as well as intended.

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If memory serves, Ma Bell was forced to break up in 1982, so once Bell didn't have a monopoly on phones, other companies began to siphon up the numbers. Good catch, anon.

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But if I did, I'd want a refund too for the overall school performance alone. And, yes, I know the best ones are excellent.

Jesus Christ, you poor bastard. I know the teachers try their best.

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Do millenials even know how to leave a voice mail or retrieve one from their inbox?

Serious question.

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They've been instructed NOT to leave voice mail.

The contact tracers have to walk a very fine line. It's imperative that the original contact be kept anonymous. So the people who talk to current patients enter that info into a database, which is then used by the contact tracers.

They can't leave a voice mail, because they have no idea if they've even reached the right person. Scaring strangers is NOT a helpful move. So they'll call, 3 different times, hoping that they've got the right number and that the person will pick up.

There isn't a callback number (to my knowledge; my info is based on public reporting), so it's not clear that it would do any good to leave voice mail or send a text.

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why isn't there a callback number?

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Why wouldn't we? We were teenagers or young adults when cell phones really took off. If anything we'd be most likely to know things like that!

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that the youngest millenials are in their mid-20s, and the oldest are in their 40s. Which is to say, yes, they all know how to leave a voicemail, good grief.

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I'm one of those people who would never answer a phone call from an unknown number, though I would listen to a voicemail message, and return the call if it sounded legit. But I think it would be more effective if they sent text messages, assuming that would be legal.

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They can't leave a text because of what may happen if someone not the recipient saw it and freaked out. Etc.

Leaving a record of the contact other than a phone number that you can't call back is a no no.

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Then how are they allowed to call from a number that appears as "MA Covid Team"? That would appear in the missed call log.

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Which will hopefully come on line next week and solve some of the communication issues

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If the spam phoners hadn't conditioned us not to answer calls from people we don't know, this wouldn't be a problem. But when most calls are robocalls or scammers, why answer?

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And the sad thing is that the auto-dialers only need a small number of live connects to be considered "successful". So they don't care that most are no-answer.

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I received a call recently from an unknown number, and I hope it wasn't the tracer calling, because my phone labeled the caller as "Potential Spam."

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Phones used to be useful things. If your phone rang, chances were good that it was a call you wanted to take. Our pathetically inadequate response to the problem of junk calls means that now we don’t answer the phone. So much utility is lost: there are many legitimate and beneficial reasons to call someone who doesn’t have your number in their contact list, the present example being just one of many. We allowed parasites to seriously diminish the value of telephony as a technology; we didn’t have to.

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And am I wrong or did this become a problem as soon as the Nazis took control?

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The major carriers could stop this very quickly if their customers insisted on it.

  • If you make robocalls, we won't sell connectivity to you.
  • If you sell connectivity to robocall shops, we won't accept interconnects from you.
  • If you accept interconnects from carriers who sell connectivity to robocall shops, we won't accept interconnects from you.
  • If you accept interconnects from carriers who accept interconnects from carriers who sell connectivity to robocall shops, we won't accept interconnects from you.

But since carriers are paid per call to terminate calls onto their network (In telco speak, "terminate" doesn't mean to end a call, it means to deliver the call to its final destination, e.g. your phone) they don't really have a huge incentive to deal with the robocall problem.

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That's the smartest thing I've ever read about the phone business.

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Is it up to phone companies to refuse to accept calls from certain other companies? I would think they're required to accept all calls. Otherwise, the phone network could fall apart very quickly.

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do not answer the call. It's conceivable I might if it was the same number a few times.

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But aren't the mayor and the governor on TV every day? Couldn't the calls not just all just show up under a single number widely publicized by one of both of them?

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That would require people still watching TV, and then memorizing a phone number. Not likely.

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Seize 1-877-Kars-for Kids

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1-888-MACOVID

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First, there has been a surge of incoming calls to people because the junk callers and debt collectors know people are home so that alone has caused an increase in unidentified calls.

Second, in my case if you are not programmed into my phone and i do not know who you are from my own programming, or if your number sends a VALID caller ID, you go to voice mail. Most of the junk callers and even some legit people hang up once they hear the voice mail kick in.

The third and more serious issue is the called ID system itself. After some research i found out that all of the major carriers have their own caller ID database and none of them connect to each other. In the last couple of years I have received calls from candidates campaigns for public office that I might have spoken to but the caller ID said that it was likely Spam. I've run into this with internal numbers at some businesses I speak to that did not have the foresight to make sure all of their lines displayed their main number.

The same thing is happening with city hall staffers that are working from home. While the calls are being routed to the staffer on call from city hall, if they call you back it is their personal number, and if that number ever had a bad reputation it displays as a spam call. I've already had to advise a few of this (I deal with the city a lot).

The lack of coordination on the caller ID databases also has some humorous results. For some time when i called a friend she would not answer, I;d l;eave a message and she would eventually call back. Eventually she started to answer the phone by saying "Hi Rachel." When i asked why, she said that was the name coming up on her caller ID. Despite her complaints to Verizon (her carriier) and my own complaints to my carrier (T-Mobile) there has never been any resolution. My friend is a senior who has no clue how to program her phone so she just needs to equate "Rachel" with me.

So I guess I need to get in touch with my feminine self if that helps any.

Side Bar... While government has managed to get public utilities to stay disconnects, they did not do that with the telecommunications people, which are no longer regulated as public utilities. So even if you are out of work and flat broke, your cell phone bill is still due and subject to automated disconnect by a mindless computer. Allegedly, they will still be able to call 911 if that happens but won't be able to talk to a doctor or check on a sick relative. Way to go.

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The state says the contact tracing calls are to inform people to "isolate" until they are not contagious but aren't we already isolating? Plus, many who receive the calls will be among those that already had it, including the 80+% of those infected who may have had it without even knowing or had symptoms so mild that they didn't seek testing. They would have the antibodies and not need any more restrictions than those already in place.

I'm sure the massive, state-run contact tracing is well-intentioned but seems meaningless when the calls are often ignored and strong precautions are already in place for all. It might be a lot wiser and cheaper to advise everyone to act as though they have it and are contagious, then shelter the elderly and pre-exisiting conditioned who make up almost all of the deadly cases. Governor Baker has said that with current restrictions, most of those infected only have, on average, three friends/relatives to warn via contact tracing. Couldn't the infected person send out three texts rather than create a new, less than effective state bureaucracy?

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1) We are staying away from other people but that is not the same as quarantine after being exposed. Quarantine means also staying away from other members of your household and not going out at all, not even for groceries.
2) Essential workers still go out, so it's important for them to know if they've been exposed and work with their employer on next steps.
3) The infected person who has been hospitalized isn't really able to call their contacts.
4) An infected essential worker may not have all their colleagues contact info
5) It's useful for the state to have data on how things spread and who's been exposed in case they get sick enough to need treatment.
6) Some people are clearly having a hard time with the abstract idea of staying home in case they're a carrier. Knowing you've been exposed might make them get with the program.

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"Ideally, the incoming caller will show up as “MA COVID Team.”

But here’s the kicker: Right now, that will only happen if the person receiving the call pays for caller ID. Massachusetts is asking Sprint, Verizon and others to waive caller ID fees and hoping phone owners will activate that feature."

It's caller name, not caller ID which everyone already has. I'm not sure why caller ID is free on cell phones while caller name costs money, since caller name and ID have been included on most landline plans for a while, and it costs them more money to make it optional than just provide it for everyone.

So first the phone companies would have to agree to make it free, and then everyone who doesn't even know they're going to get this call has to affirmatively sign up for this feature? That's never going to happen.

The state should urge the phone companies to switch on this feature for everyone, for free.

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