Cold calling in Hong Kong is so out of control, it makes you contemplate murder

Yonden Lhatoo is perplexed by the government’s reluctance to crack down on telemarketers, despite the public nuisance they cause

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 7:34pm

I don’t know if people remember any more, but it used to be the most annoying thing in the world to be “rickrolled” – clicking on a hyperlink online, only to be directed to a music video of British pop singer Rick Astley’s 1980s hit, Never Gonna Give You Up.

At least there was an element of humour in being pranked like that, but there’s nothing funny about receiving cold calls from telemarketers in this city, a scourge that sits well above being rickrolled in the global rankings of extreme irritants that make you want to strangle someone. I mean, what could be more infuriating than answering your phone while in the middle of something important, only to find some telemarketer on the other end of the line hawking products you’re least interested in.

Cold calls are not only a nuisance, they’re also ineffective

It’s been a problem in Hong Kong for many years, but seems to be getting worse these days. I have a couple of apps on my phone to block nuisance calls, but the telemarketers bypass them with fiendish nonchalance.

Last week, while awaiting a call I could not afford to miss, I was ambushed by a saleswoman on the other end of the line and found myself swearing at her in utter frustration. She swore right back and hung up, leaving me to fleetingly contemplate murder.

But my personal experience pales next to that of a family whose allergy to telemarketers was shared online by a doctor. According to his Facebook post, a seriously injured car-accident victim required urgent surgery, but hospital staff seeking his wife’s consent had to make 18 calls to her before she picked up the phone. The caller ID number started with a “3”, leading her to believe it was the usual junk call that such prefixes have conditioned us to watch out for.

The incident has caused enough public concern to squeeze another commitment out of commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung to launch a public consultation on fixing the problem.

So, by the way, is the minister who has pretty much turned a deaf ear to the noise all these years, but was upset when the poor old privacy commissioner took the initiative to conduct a survey in 2014 that found nine out of 10 Hongkongers were bothered by unsolicited calls.

It’s hard to summon up any sympathy for people whose chosen profession centres on driving the rest of us nuts

So complained that he had not been consulted, and questioned the validity of the study, although his own bureau a couple of years later found in a survey that 96 per cent of Hongkongers considered such calls a nuisance. And he still wants to “consult” the public first.

The fact is, Hong Kong already has a “do not call” register, and the millions of harassed citizens who have added their phone numbers to the list are protected by law from commercial electronic messages, including voice recordings. But person-to-person telemarketing calls are exempted.

And even if the register were to be expanded to cover cold calls, it would not filter out offshore callers. Having said that, it’s still made a difference in the US and Singapore, so why not here.

The government’s reluctance to take firm action stems from the prospect of an estimated 28,000 telemarketers losing their jobs. But at last count, 30 per cent of these jobs were outsourced to the mainland. The woman who swore back at me had a strong mainland accent, suggesting some office or shack across the border.

Time for Hong Kong to stop the nuisance calls, to protect the public and the industry

It’s a tough call, no doubt, but it’s hard to summon up any sympathy for people whose chosen profession centres on driving the rest of us nuts. The companies they work for should know that cold calls are no longer a cost-effective way of doing business.

I’m talking to you, lady with the potty mouth, and you, Mr Minister. Act now, or may the ghost of Rick Astley haunt you forever with the volume turned up to 11.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post