Stop the cold calls: Hong Kong's privacy watchdog demands stricter rules on telemarketing

More than 90pc of Hongkongers receive person-to-person marketing calls, says commissioner in plea to extend restrictions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 5:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 9:34am

The privacy watchdog has pleaded for stricter controls on unsolicited marketing phone calls, which it says dog more than nine out of 10 Hongkongers.

Citing a survey it conducted in March, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data reported that 91 per cent of the 534 people questioned reported receiving person-to-person, or P2P, marketing calls, up from 84 per cent in 2008.

Unlike recorded messages, P2P calls cannot be blocked by signing up to the city's do-not-call register, with which 2.6 million numbers have been registered since 2008. The commissioner wants the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Ordinance extended, so the HK$100,000 fine for calling a number on the register applies to calls made by human beings.

Other countries, including Britain, the US, Australia and, most recently, Singapore, bar P2P calls to numbers on their do-not-call registers.

Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang said that at the time of the previous study of direct marketing calls, in 2008, the problem was not serious enough to warrant a change in the law.

"The situation has drastically deteriorated and … it is now time for the government to reconsider our proposal [to amend the Ordinance]," he said.

Some 23 per cent of respondents received more than six P2P calls per week, up from 8 per cent in the 2008 study. Almost all respondents said they considered the calls a nuisance.

The proportion of people who had derived benefits from marketing calls fell from 13 per cent in 2008 to just 6 per cent this year, while 16 per cent said they had made a commercial transaction during a cold call.

"P2P calls … successfully bring marginal benefits to a small group of consumers, only at the expense of the majority who are caused nuisance in the process," Chiang said. He added that complaints about companies using personal data in direct marketing also rose, with over 306 complaints filed to the commission in the year to March - three times the number in the previous year.

Tighter regulations on the use of personal data in direct marketing were introduced in April last year, and the practice can be a criminal offence. But the commissioner referred just 18 complaints to police for criminal investigation, and there were no successful prosecutions.

Commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung said in response to the report that the government had an open attitude, but had to consider the interests of industry and the economy.

He said 20,000 people worked in telemarketing, and that the 16 per cent of people who did make transactions during cold calls had to be considered too.

The consumer watchdog said it too had received a flood of complaints about cold calling.

"Many companies want to reduce costs, so they outsource telemarketing to a third party … but they have little oversight over how this is conducted," said Gilly Wong Fung-han, chief executive of the Consumer Council.

Dining and hotel clubs generated most complaints, Wong said, followed by telecoms, financial and insurance, beauty and medical check-up services.