Call Recorder Roundup

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I can remember 10 of my best friends' phone numbers from high school but I can't dial either of my sisters off the top of my head. Am I getting old? Are my siblings not worth talking to? Or did my carefree youth kill off most of my competitive gray matter? I'd like to think the answer to each of these questions is no (as would my sisters). What's really happening is that technology is replacing memory. With Caller ID and memory dialing, rarely do you see a person's telephone number, much less dial it. Sure, these conveniences are making us a little lazy; but really, if you carry around your cell phone as often as many of us do, why waste your time inventing mnemonic devices? As Albert Einstein said, "Never memorize anything you can look up."

Call recording systems are the natural extension of the security provided by Caller ID. If you record your calls, conversations are documented and can be readily accessed. With an audio recording, medical workers can obtain vital information that might have been incoherent the first time around. Salespeople, financiers, scientists, and deliverymen can get details from calls without the distraction of note taking. But the real asset of recording calls is that it lets you create a legally binding record of a conversation, commitment, or promise.

In this article, I will discuss various types of call recording systems, how they function, and their different features. I'll also provide a few links to recorders sold at Hello Direct and elsewhere. Finally, at the end of the article I'll talk about what some of you may be wondering by now: Is it legal to record your telephone calls?

Self-contained call recorders
Although spy-show suction cup devices that fit onto handset earpieces are still available at cheap electronic gadget stores, call recording has evolved considerably. Handheld models generally require interfaces for telephony use that eliminate the problems of microphone recording and cost less than $100 (see Hello Direct Item #2811 and Hello Direct Item #2812). They're inexpensive, portable, can play recordings out loud, can record regular speech, and use a mini- or standard-sized cassette. Then, as you move up the price scale, features such as Caller ID (Hello Direct Item #5997), digital recording, and voice-to-text transcription—which also permits the transfer of files to a PC—are added (see Hello Direct's selection of Olympus digital recorders).

Overall, the main advantage of self-contained call recorders is minimal setup time, ease of use, flexibility, and low cost (some as low as $70). Also, if something goes wrong, you know where the problem lies. The next level of call recording incorporates your PC and, believe me, troubleshooting with your call recorder AND your PC can take hours.

PC-based recorders
As compensation for possible troubleshooting problems, PC-based recorders allow for quicker access to records and provide much more versatility and capacity. If you want to hear a specific conversation—even if it's a few years old—you can use your computer to find the call. A conversation can generally be searched by phone number, assigned code, date, or duration. Once found, you can play the call over your system's speakers or e-mail a copy to anyone with the proper playback software.

There are a few different types of high-end PC-interface recorders. Some have hard drives (or floppy disk drives) that store files internally (see Hello Direct Item #6239), and some are more dependent on your PC (see Hello Direct Item #2723). The standalone models have extensive capacities (1950 hours and 3,900 hours, respectively) and are simpler to operate, especially when recording manually. But they are also more expensive (around $1,300 to $1,800). The PC-dependent model maxes out at a lower capacity and requires space on your hard drive; however, it allows you to store an impressive 240 hours within 1 gigabyte of space, for a mere $200.

Server (multi-user) systems
The final category of call recorders consists of multi-user systems. These self-contained products can handle multiple channels and are capable of recording a much higher volume of calls. Although quite expensive (generally more than $2,000), they are excellent for businesses where reliability is imperative. Since they operate from a central location, these systems eliminate the possibility of employee error. One company I looked at, Digital Loggers, has models that record anywhere from 4 channels ($1,995) to 24 channels ($23,995). The 4-channel model stores calls on an internal hard drive (with a capacity of 10 gigabytes) and can then copy these files onto CDs. The CDs can then be played on any Windows-based computer without additional software.

Is it legal to record telephone calls?
Keeping track of recording regulations can be a pretty complicated affair, and penalties—through both civil and criminal prosecution—are stiff. The federal government, state governments, and the FCC all have different regulations. For the most part, each body uses wiretapping and eavesdropping legislation to determine the legality of telephone call recording. The main determinant for this legality is the presence of consent, of which there are 2 categories: one-party consent and all-party consent. One-party consent implies that one person within a conversation, even if that person is the one recording the call, is aware of the recording. All-party consent requires everyone within the conversation to be informed either by verbal notification or with an intermittent beep. So if 2 people are talking and a third person joins in (whether or not this person works for the same firm as one of the original parties), that third person must be notified.

State laws
Most cases are decided on the state level and, as such, the laws and penalties are more specific. With the exception of calls involving felonies or threats (in which case, calls can be recorded without consent), only 13 states require all-party consent. I've assembled a chart here with a listing of the different requirements for each state and the District of Columbia. Interestingly, the latter locale, home to our national security, requires only one-party consent.

If you'd like more specific information about your own state's requirements, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a regularly updated file of state laws.

Whose jurisdiction does an interstate call fall under?
While the federal government requires one-party consent, it doesn't have much in the way of specific legislation. But the FCC requires that all parties in a recorded interstate call must be notified either verbally or through an intermittent beep. Lawsuits concerning interstate calls have been judged in both the originating state and the receiving state, so you're better off following the guidelines of the stricter state.

International laws
Telephone recording regulations in other countries vary widely and you'd be best served by checking with your local government's telecommunications authority. Many countries, particularly less developed nations, do not have specific laws covering telecommunications and regulate on a case-by-case basis. Britain's laws are somewhat vague and are in place primarily to protect employees by requiring non-recorded telephones on site. In some countries, declaration of call recording in corporate literature is enough notification.

So if you're thinking about buying a system, here's a link to Hello Direct's call recorder page showing many of the models I've listed above. And remember to follow the law. Your best option is to institute intermittent beeps, and many models allow you to temporarily turn that feature off. After all, beeps are a lot less annoying than prison bells.