Friday, July 28, 2017

[SCMP] How Hong Kong can hang up for good on nuisance calls

Charles Mok says the government consultation document falls short on tackling the issue of unwanted sales calls, and suggests special prefixes for legal telemarketers as well as penalties for flouters of this rule

Rampant spam calls causing a nuisance are nothing new in Hong Kong. But the recent case of a hospital that spent a long time trying to reach the family of a car accident victim who needed urgent surgery, as the recipient thought these were unsolicited sales calls and did not answer the phone, really brought home the severity of the problem.

The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau initiated a public consultation on regulating unsolicited calls in May, but the consultation document not only fails to distinguish between sales calls to existing customers and those to strangers, its proposals are also passive and ineffective.

The government has put forth three proposals. The first two are for the call centres to self-regulate and, second, for the government to promote the use of call-filtering apps in smartphones.

First of all, it is rather ludicrous for the government to propose “solutions” that require little to no government effort.

Second, the measures are in fact largely already in effect, yet the problem persists. Self-regulating codes of practice are not legally binding and have little deterrent effect, while cold call companies have now found ways to work around the filtering apps.

The third proposal is to establish a statutory do-not-call register for person-to-person calls. To be fair, this is at least a step in the right direction. But such a measure won’t deter cold callers.

Such opt-out registers already exist for unsolicited fax and text messages, but they are notoriously cumbersome to sign up for online.

Further, the use of personal data in any direct marketing activity – including person-to-person telemarketing calls – is already regulated under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, where call recipients must be allowed the choice to opt out.

Companies with existing customer databases tend to abide by the rules. If the government opts for the do-not-call register option, it is simply putting even more regulatory burden on these already relatively law-abiding companies, but continuing to totally ignore the problems with the cold callers.

To that end, I propose two further solutions.

First, cold-call telemarketers that operate legally must register with the authorities and then be assigned specific prefixes, such as “4333”. Then, the government must penalise companies that flout the rule, such as by imposing a fine.

We estimated the daily number of spam calls at nearly 4 million. The implications go beyond nuisances and inconvenience, to also frauds and scams. Continued inaction is not an option.

I urge the public to express their views to the government before the July 31 deadline.

Published on South China Morning Post, July 27, 2017


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