Why telemarketing calls keep bugging you

Regulator has received 925 complaints

12 February 2024 - 08:00
By Lindile Sifile
Unsolicited telesales calls are cause for concern.
Image: 123RF Unsolicited telesales calls are cause for concern.

Isn’t it annoying when you are busy with your work and suddenly you get a telesales call from an 087 number?

You block the number, hoping it will never call you again but, moments later, a similar 087 number, now with tweaked last digits and possibly from the same company, calls you again. You are now at your wits’ end, fuming and cursing at your cellphone because its “block” button failed to do its duty.

According to the Information Regulator, direct marketing companies have found a loophole in the interpretation of “electronic communication” in reference to unsolicited direct marketing according to the provisions of the Protection of Personal Information Act (Popia). Popia is the legislation that aims to protect personal information processed by public and private bodies. 

Popia is firm on prohibiting unsolicited direct marketing via SMSes and emails to consumers. There are, however, different interpretations when it comes to calls made by direct marketers to customers. 

“The trouble is how the law defines what electronic communication is. This is where the difficulty begins because there is a view that says a phone call is not part of electronic communication, there is also a view that says calls are part of electronic communication and therefore prohibited by Popia,” says Mukelani Dimba, an executive manager responsible for education and communication at the Information Regulator’s office. 

“Direct marketing companies have taken the earlier view. It is going to be tough to resolve this until we [Regulator] have a case that has gone through our processes and made it to courts for the courts to clear the interpretation of the definition of ‘electronic communication’,” says Dimba.

“From where we stand, we have taken a view that those phonically are included in the provisions of Popia and need to apply. That is why you might have seen that the direct marketing SMSes and emails have reduced drastically, while calls have shot through the roof. This is because the direct marketing industry has interpreted the definition of electronic communication to include SMSes and emails but they are continuing with calls. This is why we are sitting with a situation where everybody gets calls day in and day out.”

Don’t despair: there seems to be light at the end of this tunnel. The regulator is working on a guidance note that could solve the telesales crisis. 

Mukelani Dimba.
Image: Supplied Mukelani Dimba.

According to Dimba, the note will spell out the regulator’s position and guide companies on how to deal with direct marketing calls according to its standards. 

“The note will first be issued to the public for comment, possibly by June this year, and then it will make a binding document to guide companies,” he says.

The Information Regulator reports to parliament, has the same legal powers as the courts and can impose enforcement notices and fines. Its first enforcement fine was against the department of justice and constitutional development last year. The department had failed to comply with the regulator’s enforcement notice issued in July 2023 after a cyber breach in 2021, which compromised the personal information of thousands of people.  

According to Dimba, the regulator has received 925 complaints in the current financial year and150 of those were for direct marketing. Others were from companies which report security breaches to them. 

His office will soon issue enforcement notices to 14 companies for violating Popia’s direct marketing provisions. The companies include a flower delivery company, banks and telecom service firms.

This will be the first time the regulator issues an enforcement notice to companies for direct marketing. Dimba says this is because most companies comply immediately once they have been made aware of a complaint against them. “Most cases get resolved pre-investigation,” he said. 

He says unsolicited direct marketing has increased because consumers are not reporting it to the regulator. 

“If you go on social media, you will see a lot of people complaining about lots of calls from telesales agents but it you compare those numbers to the ones we have [150 complaints], they do not tally up. We want people to come to us,” he said. 

Commenting on how personal information consumers is shared among companies, Dimba says the regulator has noticed a potential collision between service providers and credit bureaus, where customer information shared between them ends up at the hands of lead agencies. 

“These agencies can buy a single credit record of a customer for 60c and that is a lot of money if the seller has access to 10-million credit profiles,” he said.

The Information Regulator’s office can be contacted on 010-023-5200 or enquiries@inforegulator.org.za