call centre atmosphere Picture: Paballo Thekiso

Few, if any, people relish getting a surprise call from a stranger who’s very obviously reading from a sales pitch script, desperately trying to sell them something.

The direct marketing industry’s spin on what they do is that it’s far more transparent and respectful to engage directly with “an audience of one” when selling a product or service, as opposed to the mass market.

Having listened to far too many recorded conversations of unsophisticated consumers being “ambushed” on their cellphones and agreeing – sometimes unwittingly – to a product or service despite clearly not understanding exactly what it is or what it will cost them, I don’t share that view.

And for those of us who do grasp what such calls or SMSes are about, the intrusions are annoying, and we just wish they’d stop.

The Consumer Protection Act entitles a consumer to demand that any company that has approached them, via e-mail or SMS or phone call, immediately retract such an approach and not contact them again.

But the main bit of protection – the National Consumer Commission’s establishing of an authoritative, legally enforceable Do Not Contact registry – has not yet happened.

So, for now, the Direct Marketing Association of South Africa (DMASA) continues to provide consumers with the only form of protection against unwanted commercial intrusions – it runs its own opt-out register, and the names on this register are made available to paid-up members on a monthly basis.

So if you register your name on that (go to www.nationaloptout.co.za), most of your unwanted “spam” will stop. But non-association members will continue to harass you.

Of course, as a consumer, you have the right to tell any company to stop pestering you with any form of direct marketing, at any time.

The bad news is they may just carry on regardless. And many do.

Cape Town attorney Rudi Ackerman, who specialises in Consumer Protection Act matters, recently tackled one such marketer, which he has chosen not to identify, with surprising results.

“I kept receiving SMSes from several companies, despite opting out several years ago on the DMASA database,” he said.

“I keep warning marketers that their conduct was in contravention of the CPA and furthermore, a waste of time and money.

“What really gets me is that I need to make an effort and spend money on an SMS to opt out every time they send me a message. Why does the responsibility lie with me?”

This is a sentiment expressed by many Consumer Talk readers.

So, after receiving a fresh crop of unsolicited SMSes recently, Ackerman decided to take a stand.

“I sent a specific marketer a letter warning them that I am busy and that my time is being wasted by their illegal conduct. Furthermore, as I am an attorney, I charge per hour and hence their conduct is costing me money.”

In response, he got a call from a representative of the company who apologised profusely.

“I accepted the apology on the basis that it was a technical error and they had taken the time to contact me and had further undertaken to ensure that it would never happen again,” Ackerman said.

But two weeks later, he got another SMS from the same company.

“So I drew up a bill of R926.20 for the time and expenses I incurred in dealing with this matter, and my firm then sent a formal letter of demand enclosing my bill.

“I was fully prepared to take this matter further as I did not expect them to comply with my demand. But to my absolute surprise, I received full payment within a couple of days.

“I am telling you this story because direct marketers need to be held accountable. If word gets out that they can indeed be held accountable, it would make them think twice and ensure that proper channels are followed.”

I love that.

It reminds me of the story I featured in this column last November, of Richard Herman of Middlesex, UK, who got fed up with companies calling him up – sometimes twice a day – wanting to sell him payment protection insurance, a controversial add-on which we call credit insurance.

This was despite him having listed his name on the UK’s TDS telephone preference service, the country’s official opt-out register.

Herman had complained to the country’s Information Commissioner, but was told that as the calls were coming from a company not based in the UK, there was nothing the authorities could do.

So during one such call, Herman – who routinely records his phone calls, and this is the crux of the story – recorded one of those telesales calls, including his warning to the caller that should the company call again, he’d charge them £10 (R139) a minute for his time.

Sure enough, another call came, and it took Herman about 19 minutes to confirm that it had come from the same company.

So he sent off a letter to the company, with an invoice for £195, for his time.

When the company denied having contacted him again, he produced his trump card – the call recordings – and took his case to his local small claims court, claiming £195 from the company.

The company settled, paying him £220 – which included the £25 Herman had paid to the small claims court.

The UK media loved the story, elevating Herman to hero status. His story has delighted – and united – people around the world; anyone who has ever deeply resented getting unsolicited “cold” calls from people wanting to flog them stuff they don’t need or want, but felt powerless to stop them.

He has since created a website – www.saynotocoldcalls.com – in which he outlines what he did to get “peace and quiet”, and a massive amount of satisfaction too, no doubt.

Of course, with direct marketing SMSes, you have ready-made proof of sender; no special recording required.