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Sorry, wrong number

Service providers or their staff sell our phone numbers to telemarketers and profit from invading our privacy, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2007 11:10 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

A year ago, tiring of the constant barrage of telemarketing calls from banks, insurance companies, car finance agencies and the like, I devised a cunning plan. Journalists (like telemarketers, I guess) have access to the telephone numbers of the rich and powerful. Often, these guys give us their numbers themselves because they want publicity and even if they don’t, we have ways of obtaining them.

My plan was as follows: I would spend a whole month patiently noting down the names of every company on behalf of whom I was being cold called. Then, after I had compiled a list of the 10 worst offenders, I would entreat my colleagues in the business section of the HT to find me the names of the top three executives at each of these 10 companies.

Next, I would ask the business desk to give me a) their office phone numbers, b) their home phone numbers and c) those mobile numbers that they tried to conceal by resorting to the foolish and pretentious "private number" facility.

Then, I would write a Counterpoint complaining about the unacceptable invasion of privacy that telemarketing constituted. But I would ask you not to shout at some hapless youth in a call center who is only trying to eke out a living. Why waste time on the monkey, when you should be going for the organ grinder?

I would go on to list the office, residence and mobile phone numbers of the top executives of the firms that engaged these call center kids and write: “These are the real culprits, not the people who physically make the calls."

Finally, I would urge you to phone these executive hot shots directly each time you got a nuisance call and complain personally.

There was no need to be rude.

You could just say something like, “Hello, Mr Fat Cat. You don’t know me. But I'm some unfortunate nobody who has had his privacy ceaselessly invaded by unsolicited calls from faceless call center boffins who man the phones on your behalf while you lunch at The Belvedere and prepare lectures on corporate social responsibility. Can you please tell your minions to lay off? Because otherwise, my next call will be to your home at 11 pm tonight. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll call you on your mobile early in the morning (like, 4 am, for instance). It’s nothing personal. But since you have no respect for my privacy, I don’t see why I should have any respect for yours. Bye! Have a nice day!”

As several million people read the HT on Sunday, my calculation was as follows. Assume only one in ten of you reads Counterpoint. That’s still six lakh or so readers. If just one in ten of Counterpoint readers followed my suggestion, that still meant that over 60,000 people would cold call these fat cats and give them a taste of their own medicine. Thirty fat cats versus 60,000 readers? The numbers were on our side.

Perhaps it would have the beneficial effect of getting them to call off their minions. Perhaps they would finally know how the rest of us feel. And — worst-case scenario — suppose it made no difference to their dodgy business practices? Even then, wouldn’t it have been fun to have woken these hot shots up in the middle of the night so that we could do to them what they had done unto others?

I did not go ahead with my plan for two reasons: firstly, I had a small attack of scruples. Was it right to encourage readers to invade the privacy of individuals? Then, even when this attack of conscience faded (yes, it is right; God knows, the greedy sods deserve to be on the receiving end for once), I found a more compelling reason for holding off: the government had passed a law discouraging telemarketing. Once consumers put our names down in a register, we would be exempt from these nuisance calls. Oh, all right, I decided, the government has stepped in, so there’s no need for me to out these guys.

Even though the newspapers told us that companies were now abandoning cold calling because of the legislation, I still had a few niggling doubts. Why should we have to go to such lengths to say that we did not want our privacy invaded? Surely, it should be the other way around? There should be a register for those who wanted to be called, not for those who just wanted to be left alone. Does the government ask us to sign up to say that we don’t want to be robbed, cheated, assaulted or defamed? It’s taken for granted that people are entitled to certain protections — such as the right to privacy — so we shouldn’t have to ask for them. The legislation was already tilted in favour of the telemarketers.

Over the last few months, my worst suspicions have been confirmed. After a brief lull, the telemarketers are back in force. Nobody knows exactly how to get on to this register to guarantee freedom from nuisance calls, so relatively few people have signed up.

And now, here’s the worst news of all: even if you sign up, it makes no difference.

Yesterday, HT carried the story of my enterprising colleague Nandini R Iyer and her failure to obtain any respite from nuisance calls despite signing up to say that she did not want to be bothered.

If you missed the story (page one in Bombay, carried somewhere inside in Delhi), here’s what Nandini wrote. On September 1, she told Airtel, her service provider, to put her on the register. She received an SMS saying that calls would stop in 45 days.

But 45 days later, the calls kept coming. She called Airtel to complain. As anybody who has ever dealt with an Airtel helpline will know, this is a doomed enterprise. Nandini called three times and spoke to three different “customer care executives” who gave her the same lie: “We can only stop promotional calls from Airtel. You have to contact the service provider from whose number the call originated.”

The following day, she was cold called by Citibank. She called Airtel again only to get the same lie. Over the next week, as the calls kept coming, she kept calling Airtel. The usual lie was repeated again and again. Nandini is a journo so she had access to a telecom regulatory official (which most consumers do not). He told her that, no, it was Airtel’s responsibility. She called Airtel again, got the brush off and asked to speak to a supervisor. They said they would call back. They never did.

She called again the following day. They still refused to put her through to the supervisor (“We’ll call back”). So, the next time she got a cold call, she asked the woman who was calling why she was still getting such calls given that she was on the register. The woman was more helpful than Airtel. She apologised and said it was the bank’s job to delete registered numbers. The call center just phoned the number they were given.

Till November 1, Airtel had not called Nandini back.

In all fairness, the HT asked Airtel for a response. This is what they said: “Since the registry is still evolving, critical elements of the mechanism are yet being implemented. There will be complaints that no service provider will be able to address at this time.”

Translation: Go jump in the lake.

But forget Airtel. Forget its evident incompetence. What about the mechanism? What good does it do if service providers, who are the point of reference for consumers, either lie to us or say that they are helpless? How is this system ever going to work?

My guess is that it won’t. Because nobody really gives a damn about our privacy. Service providers — or their employees — sell our phone numbers to telemarketers and profit from invading our privacy. And the so-called regulator appears to be blind, deaf and dumb.

So, what can we do? Do we just live with the realisation that we are small cogs in the wheel of corporate greed and allow them to call us whenever they like? Do we pay the roaming charges when their nuisance calls are forwarded to us when we are out of town?

I have no answers. But I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to wait a few months to see if things improve.

If they don’t, it’s back to my original plan. So, fat cats, get set for some nuisance calls on your mobiles at midnight. We may not have the power to stop you, but two can play this game.

If you can invade our privacy, then we can certainly drive a tank through yours.