Pesky SMSes down, but not out


Unsolicited pesky calls and SMSes are down, but not out, despite the telecom ministry and regulator Trai’s efforts to free mobile subscribers from this irritant.

Trai had issued a ‘Telecom Commercial Communications Customer Preference Regulation 2010’, which came into force on September 27, 2011. In spite of this, between September-end and November 30, 2011, 9,746 complaints were received from subscribers who were harassed with unsolicited SMSes/calls. Given that a vast majority of victims have given up complaining, clearly, the actual number of infringements would run into lakhs.

Responding to a question in Parliament, the department of telecom ( DoT) explained that these “complaints largely related to unsolicited SMSes, while complaints relating to unsolicited calls have reduced considerably. Also it is seen that the majority of complaints of unsolicited commercial communications related to unregistered telemarketers.”

One of the reasons for the failure to arrest the menace is that pesky calls and SMSes is a business that runs into tens of crores. Yet, in sharp contrast, the penalty is so insignificant that it is hardly a disincentive.

Only three access providers penalized registered tele-marketers for unsolicited pesky calls and SMSes in merely 18 cases, resulting in the deposit of a paltry penalty of Rs 6 lakh with the Trai. That’s an insignificant deterrent compared to the large canvas of 14 operators per circle and thousands of telemarketers who are together involved in the business of unsolicited calls and SMSes.

Tata Tele penalised nine registered telemarketers, depositing Rs 3.3 lakh as penalty, Vodafone six telemarketers with a penalty of Rs 2 lakh, and Loop Mobile three defaulters totalling to a penalty of Rs 75,000. A total of 3,409 notices have been sent till November-end to those who are not registered as telemarketers but are involved in telemarketing activities, while 410 telephone numbers of such subscribers have been disconnected.

Even though the number of complaints has come down to 10%, it is clear that companies have found ways to either circumvent the regulation or use international telecom companies to send in SMSes, given the low cost of termination in India. Furthermore, the weaknesses in Trai’s regulations, resulting in a mere Rs 6 lakh fine in comparison to a lucrative and massive business, shows that there is sufficient incentive for telemarketers to continue in the business of unsolicited SMSes/calls while taking into account the risk of being caught or penalised.

Amongst the major defaulters using unsolicited SMSes are real estate companies, especially now, with the economy seeing a massive slowdown in the sale of apartments in the Rs 50 lakh-Rs 3 crore range. Real estate specialists predict a further slowdown over the next few months, which means that targeting of subscribers though illegal SMSes is likely to go up as it is a far more effective method of advertising than mass campaigns, especially for small and mid-sized builders.

When TOI approached a telemarketer as a decoy customer, the salesperson said both customers in and outside the Do Not Disturb (DND) list could be targeted for the same price of Rs 7,500 for 1 lakh SMSs or roughly 7 paise/SMS, hinting that there were “ways to get around the DND subscriber barriers”. Telemarketers offer a money back guarantee in the event that the advertiser does not get any customer response/call backs. The salesperson told TOI that real estate firms are content even with 15-20 customer call enquiries per 1 lakh SMSs. Clearly, the low costs of targeting customers through SMSes, coupled with an ineffective penal system, makes the menace hard to wish away at least in the short term.

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