Telemarketers to police themselves

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2009, 12:00am

Four out of five recipients regard them as a nuisance but the government has decided not to legislate against telephone marketing calls, opting instead for a voluntary code of practice.

The decision, made after a year-long study of how to regulate calls made by people as distinct from automated calls that are already subject to legislation, is seen by critics as a 'midway' response to a problem that may require further action.

The Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta) will put forward a voluntary code in collaboration with four industries that make 90 per cent of at least 500,000 - and some say millions - of person-to-person calls that go out to numbers across Hong Kong every day. But legislation remains a possibility if complaints continue.

While long-suffering recipients are unlikely to welcome the move, it will be good news for people working in the industry, which one player puts in the tens of thousands, including callers and backroom staff.

The decision is set out in a government paper submitted to the Legislative Council's information and broadcasting panel yesterday. The paper also contained results of a survey in which 42 per cent of 967 interviewees said they had received one to three telemarketing calls over the past seven days. Eight per cent said they got more than six calls.

Four of five respondents said the calls had caused them inconvenience, but 13 per cent said they had got benefits such as discounts and gifts, while 21 per cent said they had made transactions as a result.

Asked if they thought a law was needed to govern the practice, 42 per cent said yes and 29 per cent no.

In a separate survey of 45 companies that use telephone marketing, 41 opposed any legislation or code of practice.

Hong Kong Institute of Marketing chairman Yim Kai-ming, who said the daily number of calls could be in the millions, felt a code of practice was a practical solution and a blanket ban could bring more problems than it solved.

'It is almost impossible to define these calls,' he said. 'The callers can always escape prosecution by saying they call the wrong numbers.'

John Chiu Chi-yeung, chairman of Hong Kong Call Centre Association, said many companies had outsourced their call centres and there could be tens of thousands relying on them for a job.

He said the association had introduced a 'best practice' code a year ago for its 150 members - about 80 per cent of the call centre industry - but admitted there might still be black sheep that did not comply.

'We have set out rules on the hours of calling and the callers must identify themselves at the beginning of a conversation,' he said. 'When we come across a roaming call, we will also hang up immediately.'

Chiu said companies also had to honour an 'unsubscribe' policy for people who did not want to get calls.

The authority said the survey results indicated certain telemarketing calls did bring benefits to some people and the surveys did not present an 'overwhelming case' for legislation to be enacted.

The study showed that insurance, telecommunications, finance and call centres made most of the person-to-person telemarketing calls, with the 45 companies in the survey together putting through almost 500,000 calls a day. One finance firm alone could make up to 47,085 calls per day.

Yim said that with the volume of telemarketing calls reaching millions a day even a one per cent success rate could generate good business.

Samson Tam Wai-ho, the legislator for the information technology functional constituency, said the code of practice was acceptable for now but legislation might be required if it did not prove to be effective.

Internet Society chairman Charles Mok said the Ofta should establish a mechanism to act upon complaints and the code of practice should include protection of clients' personal data.