With landlines becoming a relic of the past, the telemarketers have wheedled their way into our personal devices – and then some. These days, about 54% of mobile users find themselves on the receiving end of marketing calls at some point.
So how can we stop unwanted calls? And how do telemarketers and charities get hold of our mobile numbers in the first place?
These are especially urgent questions in the era of COVID-19, as CHOICE research suggests that nuisance calls and texts have risen during pandemic-related lockdowns.
Businesses can buy your number from companies that specialise in selling data. How did those companies get your data? You likely gave them access to it when you ticked 'yes' and agreed to the terms and conditions on a website or online competition.
Or sometimes marketers use random number generators and automatic dialing systems to track you down.
(In both these cases companies must first 'wash' the data to remove any numbers on the Do Not Call Register, so if you're registered you shouldn't receive cold calls from companies you've never heard of.)
And then other times you might hear from a company you have an existing relationship with.
How you give telemarketers permission to call – without even realising it
Businesses are allowed to contact you if you've given them permission either explicitly or implicitly – what's known in the business as 'express' and 'inferred' consent.
It's a bit like the difference between making a friend on Facebook and in real life. On Facebook, you send a friend request and the person accepts. This is express consent – you've clearly asked and they've clearly answered yes.
In real life, you might meet someone at a party, have coffee a few times and then invite them to your birthday BBQ – you haven't ever explicitly asked them to be your friend, but your interactions indicate that you might want them to be. This is inferred consent: you have an existing relationship with them, so it's reasonable to assume that they want to hear from you.
In the telemarketing world, inferred consent happens when you have an existing business relationship with a company: they can contact you to let you know about deals and products you might be interested in.
"But the entity still has to be contacting you in relation to that relationship," says Jeremy Fenton, executive manager of unsolicited communications and cyber security at the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
"So, if you have an account with a bank, it's not necessarily okay for them to be contacting you selling, for example, insurance services. There is a direct consideration of the existing relationship and how the marketing contact relates to that existing relationship."
The problem is that you can give 'express' consent without knowing it.
You might've filled out a form or entered an online competition and ticked 'yes' to accept the terms and conditions, thereby giving permission for your number to be used for telemarketing – and perhaps even to be shared with or sold to other companies.
Calls from businesses are the most common type of telemarketing calls or texts received on mobile phones, so you should be aware when you're agreeing to let them do it.
Unless otherwise specified, express consent lasts for three months from the date you consented, though in some cases it could last indefinitely.
With around 11 million numbers on the Do Not Call Register – over four million of which are mobiles – it's clear that Australians don't like being pestered by businesses.
Nevertheless, only 14% of mobile numbers were listed on the register as of 2016, although the take-up for mobile numbers is significantly outpacing the take-up for landlines.
If you're being swamped by calls, the Do Not Call Register is your first step.
"It's fast, free and confidential," says Fenton. "This will stop a majority of commercial calls."
Either visit donotcall.gov.au or call 1300 792 958 to add your number to the register. It'll take up to 30 days for your registration to take effect. You'll only need to register once – the registration is indefinite.
There's no guarantee that this will stop every unwanted call, but it should significantly reduce them.
Getting called after you're joined the Do Not Call Register can make you wonder if it was worth the effort. Just when you thought you were in the clear, along comes another 'chugger' (charity mugger) from a marketing agency asking you to donate – calling, no doubt, just as you've sat down to dinner.
While the Do Not Call Register is a useful tool, it's not a cure-all.
"Some people … don't necessarily understand that if they give permission, telemarketers can actually call their number, even though it's on the Do Not Call Register," Fenton says. "And sometimes people don't really understand that they have given permission."
Exemptions to the Do Not Call Register
Even if you're on the Do Not Call Register, you can still be contacted by:
- registered charities
- opinion pollsters
- government bodies
- social researchers
- educational organisations.
These types of callers are allowed to bypass the Register, but they do need to comply with the Telecommunications (Telemarketing and Research Calls) Industry Standard 2017, which stipulates:
- when a telemarketer or researcher can call you
- what information they have to give you at the start of the call
- the information they have to give you if you request it
- that they must terminate the call if you ask.
Nearly half of all major charities are members of the Fundraising Institute of Australia (FIA), which has its own code of conduct that purports to protect vulnerable consumers and claims to set a higher bar than the industry standard.
The self-regulatory code only came into effect on 1 January 2018, so at the time of publishing it's difficult to say whether it will be effective, especially since it was drafted with very little consumer consultation.
If you think an FIA member is breaching the code, you can complain directly to the charity, or to the FIA at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1300 889 670.
If you simply hang up on a telemarketer, your number could stay on their call list, so you may be hassled again. Some charities also obtain lists of current donors from other charities or professional fundraising companies, so if you donate to one you may start receiving calls from others.
The best way to ensure they don't keep calling is to ask them to remove your number from their list.
'Polite but firm' should be your mantra when talking to telemarketers. The magic words are: "I want to be removed from your calling list" . They're obliged to do so, and to terminate the call if you request it.
"I get lots of free 'gifts' in the mail from charities I've never even heard of, but I get no calls whatsoever, even from the ones I donate to regularly. Want to know the secret? When they call, ask them not to – that's all I did," says CHOICE.Community member Jessica.
"For charities that I donate to regularly, I specifically ask to be taken off their call list and warn them that if they phone me again I will cancel my donation. I never hear from them again. If other charities call, I ask not to be called and tell them I will not donate to charities that call me. I can't remember the last time a charity called me."
CHOICE tip: Some professional fundraising companies represent multiple charities. If the fundraising company is an FIA member, you can ask them to remove your number from all their campaigns – they're obliged to honour that request.
Our research has found that 88% of people wish there was more they could do to stop unsolicited calls. There is – but you have to take action.
"Consumers have the power. They can give permission, and they can take it away," says Fenton. "It doesn't matter if the permission is direct or indirect – consumers have the power to take their permission away."
If you tell a business you don't want to receive telemarketing calls from them, they're required to stop calling you – the consent ends then and there. (See 'What to say to telemarketers' for tips.)
If they do keep calling, contact the company or charity directly to complain. If that doesn't work, bring out the big guns: complain to the ACMA.
"We're deeply interested in consumer complaints – they're actually really important to us and they directly inform our education and awareness-raising activities, and our compliance actions," says Fenton.
"If a caller persists, then we want to know about it. If you believe someone has broken the rules, report it to the ACMA."
The ACMA is cracking down on consent-based marketing practices, and Fenton says it has already uncovered some significant breaches. "Those breaches to date more often than not have fallen in the category of failure to withdraw consent – so a consumer has let an entity know that they no longer wish to receive marketing and they haven't been listened to."
To report a complaint, go to donotcall.gov.au or call 1300 792 958.