Monthly Archives: May 2018

Spam call deterrence

Time-wasting marketing calls to my cellphone are a bit of a problem. I have developed the habit of checking any new number against online spam call reporting websites, and if the number turns out to be a spammer, then saving it under “Spam call” in my phone. Then in the future, any call from the same number shows up on the phone as Spam call. There are probably apps for blocking numbers, but as an economist, I would prefer a tax to a ban. I would like to make callers pay me for calling me, to compensate for my time spent answering or blocking, and also to deter spam calls. In principle, charging a fee for receiving a call is possible, because there are already 1-800 numbers and others that are pricier to call than an ordinary phone.
If it was costlier to call me than most numbers, then I would refund the extra calling fee to my friends and other legitimate callers, so they would not be deterred from calling me. This is easy, because I can see the list of calls, their durations and numbers online, so can calculate how much extra each caller paid to call me. Spammers of course would not get a refund.

Unfortunately, imposing a monetary cost on spammers is infeasible for most individuals. There are now apps that block spam numbers automatically, and the user can specify additional numbers to blacklist. However, a better version of spam call deterrence is not to block the call, but to impose as large a cost on the caller as possible. A non-monetary way to punish spammers is to waste their time. If the person called pretends to be a gullible customer and keeps the spammer talking for a long time, but in the end does not buy what is being sold, then the spammer loses more than by just being blocked. Unfortunately, this also wastes time for the victim of spam, and that time is usually more valuable than the spammer’s, especially with modern robocalls and auto-dialling.

To fight fire with fire, victims of spam could have an AI on their phone respond in their stead. The time of the AI costs little, so the AI could play the part of a gullible customer, keeping the caller hopeful. The AI could say: „Tell me more,” „How much does it cost?” and other encouraging things, agree to buy what the caller is selling, provide a fake credit card number and other data. Only after a long call, entering the fake data to process the order, confirming the address, etc, would the spammer learn that no profit is forthcoming.

Similarly, AI could produce written responses to email spam to deter it. For example, provide (fake) account numbers and passwords to the self-proclaimed Nigerian prince, after asking for various confirmations and documentation.

Spam call deterrence of course is just a part of general spam deterrence, for which one way is boycotting. However, boycotts may backfire if firms spam on behalf of competitors to make them look bad, as in a false flag attack.

Sugar-free, fat-free and low-salt claims

The three main ingredients of unhealthy food are sugar, salt and fat. The packaging of junk food often has claims of sugar-free, fat-free or low-salt in big colourful letters on the front. The trick is that the absence of one of the three ingredients is compensated by a larger amount of the other two, as can be checked from the nutrition information label.
Sometimes the claims on the front of the pack directly contradict the nutrition label, so are downright lies. I have seen packaging with the claim “sugar-free” on the front, with sugars listed in significant quantity on the nutrition label. There are some legal sanctions for falsifying the nutrition information label, but almost no restrictions on what can be claimed elsewhere on the pack, so any contradictions should almost always be resolved in favour of the nutrition label.
I have seen a sugar-free claim on a pack on which the ingredient list included brown sugar. This suggests the existence of a legal loophole (brown sugar not equalling sugar somehow) that the manufacturer wanted to use.
If the manufacturer does not want to outright lie, then a trick I have seen is to claim “no added sugar” or “no sugar or artificial sweeteners” on the pack, but add other sweeteners, e.g. sugarcane juice, molasses, high fructose corn syrup. Similarly, “no added salt” can be bypassed by adding salty ingredients, for example dried salted meat or bacon to a snack mix.
Another trick is to create the sugar in the food during the manufacturing process. For example, heating starch for a long time or adding the enzyme amylase breaks the starch into smaller-molecule sugars. So a manufacturer can claim “no added sweeteners” and yet produce sugars in the food by processing the starch in it.
A similar trick for salt is to add sodium and chloride in other ingredients and let them combine into NaCl in the food.