March 11, 2003

Mass Marketers Target Students

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Early-morning phone calls, unwanted catalogues, floods of spam in students’ e-mail: There’s no denying that telemarketing and junk mail are alive and well at Cornell. However, there are policies in place, both on campus and at state and national levels, which may help to decrease the amount of marketing students receive.

“It’s really annoying to get out of bed and answer the phone only to have someone offer you a credit card,” said Clare Boronow ’06.

Her comment reflects the opinions of many students who are fed up with a deluge of unsolicited marketing.

With new students just beginning to experience the joys of mass marketing, they may wonder how companies are finding their contact information. Boronow has considered the possibility that Cornell was itself responsible.

“All Cornell students seem to get the same junk mail and calls,” she said, “so that would imply that the telemarketers have one big Cornell student list.”

However, according to David S. Yeh, University registrar and assistant vice president for academic support services, the University’s policies on sharing information are clear.

“We at all costs try not to send out information about a student that could personally identify them … unless it’s required by law,” he said.

However, student phone numbers, addresses and network IDs are available through Cornell’s online directory. Yeh acknowledged that the wisdom of having this information available has been debated on and off and said that it may be revisited “given the times we’re in now.”

Students have the option of removing their personal information from the directory.

“It’s a little more complicated than just pushing a button and everything gets suppressed,” Yeh said.

If students wish to have their phone numbers and addresses removed from the directory, they must submit a request to the registrar’s office within ten days of registration each year. A separate request must be submitted if they wish to remove their e-mail addresses as well. Doing this would make it impossible for anyone, even friends, to find their contact information online.

Another step Cornell has taken to limit unwanted marketing is a new e-mail program called PureMessage. PureMessage has two functions. First, it blocks messages carrying viruses from reaching students’ computers. Instead, they receive a message from Cornell Information Technologies (CIT) informing them of the virus and who sent the e-mail. Also, it places a flag on messages which are likely to be spam. This determination is based on a “list of about 700 heuristics it uses to identify spam,” according to Jim Howell, the messaging systems manager at CIT. These include e-mails with graphics, keywords in the subject line and “known spam phrases.”

Statistics from e-mail accounts which have already begun to use PureMessage show that about 42 percent of the mail received is potentially spam. And while Howell hasn’t received much feedback from students, he has “had feedback from a number of staff who were helping to test and they loved it. They thought it was great.”

Richard MacDonald ’71, director of systems and operations at CIT, was “surprised by the percentage that we’re seeing that was identified as spam,” but says to keep in mind that, because of the nature of the program, there may be some regular e-mail marked as spam and vice versa. Even with that in mind, MacDonald says, he still finds the numbers “pretty eye-opening.”

Two other programs from outside Cornell may also be of help to students irritated by telemarketing and mass e-mailing. The first is a service provided by the Direct Marketing Association. Students sending their full name, address and signature can be removed from most national mailing lists for five years.

Another program is the New York State “Do Not Call” Telemarketing Registry, run by the New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB), which has grown to include over 1.9 million households since it took effect on April 1, 2001. According to Jon Sorenson, a spokesperson for the CPB, the system is a success.

“We hear anecdotally all the time from folks who say it’s stopped calls,” Sorenson said.

Based on Federal Trade Commission figures of 100 million telemarketing calls per day, the CPB estimates that it has blocked at least half a million calls since the “Do Not Call” Registry took effect. Placing oneself on the registry restricts almost all telemarketing calls except for charities and some other exceptions. Enrollment in this program is free for all phone numbers in New York State and lasts for three years. There is a 30-day grace period after which any restricted telemarketing can be fined up to $2,000 per violation.

Sorenson also mentioned that plans are underway for a similar national registry. While he did not know how it would affect New York’s system, he said it could “only benefit consumers.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts