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Bring back the telephone operator
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Last year, Exxon reported profits of more than $40 billion.

And those oil company profits are predicted to rise as gas prices reach $4 a gallon.

And while that is certainly worth screaming and gnashing our collective teeth over, it's chump change compared to an ongoing swindle being perpetuated on the American public every day without apparent notice. This fraud - yes, I said fraud - is something that sucks pennies from every person in this country, probably every day of the week, yet none of the major news outlets have bothered to comment on it, law enforcement is apparently busy with murders and such, and our government leaders... Ha! They're probably in on it.

What I'm referring to, my fellow fleeced, is automated telephone answering systems.

You know what I'm talking about - when you call the phone company because a squirrel got blown to smithereens in a transformer outside your house, rendering your home phone useless. The telephone company office is right down the street, but when you get your cell phone to call the phone company to report the incident, you reach someone in another continent who doesn't understand (Southern) English.

That's frustrating enough, and I'm not even going to consider the mental anguish, psychiatry bills, or phones that have been destroyed by these systems' annoyance.

Instead, I will explain how companies that use these systems generate enormous profits and, thus, methodically rook ordinary Americans of their hard-earned wages.

Let's say, for instance, that you have a question about a utility bill. There is a charge on the bill you don't recognize or don't understand and, perhaps, feel that it is unwarranted or a mistake.

So, you call the toll-free number provided for such an occasion and reach the company's automated system. You are then steered through a number of options. Sometimes the options address your issue, sometimes they don't. If you need to actually talk to a human being to resolve your issue, for the sake of this exercise, I'll be generous and say your wait will be 15 minutes.

When you actually speak to a person, the odds that they'll be able to understand you are, being generous, 35 percent. The odds that they'll be able to answer your question quickly, are, again, being generous, 2 percent.

You'll then be put on hold. Your wait this second time is usually shorter - an estimated 8 minutes.

Now, just waiting to see if your issue can be resolved takes an estimated 20-25 minutes. And that doesn't include the time it consumes if you press the wrong button and have to start all over again (a Robbins specialty). Add about 10 more minutes for the undexterous.

That's where they get you. Most people won't wait that long. Most people have jobs, families, important responsibilities, or "American Idol" is on. They are going to hang up after 10 minutes and just let those puzzling charges on their bills keep mounting.

And there's nothing we can do about it. Try not paying that part of the bill you have a question about. Then, when your credit report has an ugly stain on it, good luck calling the credit report company to explain. They're on an automated phone system too (from what I've been told).

Companies started using these systems about a decade or so ago, purporting that they were a money-saving measure. OK, fine - why hasn't my bill decreased? In addition to the mysterious charges I can never seem to demystify, my rates keep going up.

So, these companies rake in additional billions a day simply because we can't get in touch with them or have the patience to stay on hold. We certainly can't be held responsible for that.

The only way to get rid of this method of profiteering is to get rid of the automated phone systems themselves. Outlaw them and bring back people who actually answer phones. And punish those whose utilize automated systems to answer their phones.

I would consider a justifiable punishment to be the death penalty.

Len Robbins is editor and publisher of The Clinch County News.