Thousands fall for pounds 1 fax 'poll' on referendum

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It Must rank as one of the most audacious election wheezes ever: an enterprising businessman has sent out 830,000 faxes asking people if they are in favour of a referendum on Europe and to fax their responses to a private number. The wheeze? To reply, with your fax slowly groaning and whirring, costs pounds 1 per minute.

For the past three weeks, Gordon Ritchie, from Wapping in east London, has been faxing ballot papers across Britain. Headed "The Referendum on Europe", they invite recipients to tick one of two boxes, in favour or against a vote on Europe and, depending on their view, to fax it back to one of two 0331 numbers. In the small print at the bottom of the form is the caution: "Calls to 0331 numbers cost pounds 1 per minute at all times."

Before filling in their answer, complete with name and address, recipients are asked to copy the form "for everybody who wishes to express an opinion in your office".

Results of the ballot, promises the form, will be presented in a national advertising campaign.

The small print claims the poll is conducted by Fax Polling Associates on behalf of the Society for the Promotion of a European Referendum (SPER).

Two telephone numbers are given for these previously unheard of bodies on the British political scene. SPER's address is given as Suite 401, 302 Regent St, London WI. In fact, Fax Polling Associates is run by Mr Ritchie and SPER has just two members: Mr Ritchie and Tony Moore, his business partner.

At Wapping, Mr Ritchie, 39, has bought every available list of fax numbers and packaged them together in one huge database called The British Fax Directory which he sells for pounds 19.50 a time.

Using 60 automatic fax lines, his staff have been sending out faxes on behalf of SPER at the rate of 250,000 a week since 19 March. "We've sent 830,000," said Mr Ritchie. For every answer, he receives 65p plus VAT. The rest goes to the network supplier. So far, said Mr Ritchie, the reply rate is "between 5 and 10 per cent".

Each fax, he said, costs him 10p to send, so the bill for 830,000 faxes comes to pounds 83,000. To break even, 15 per cent of the recipients needed to respond - so to date at least, he claims to be out of pocket.

Cold faxing, argued Mr Ritchie, was a "new way of polling" that was bound to upset some people. A spokesman for the Market Research Society, the association for the main polling organisations, for instance, said it had "a strict code of conduct which prohibits its members from making money from their respondents or using their names and addresses for selling. This exercise will not produce results of any value and is wholly against the practice of professional research".

Mr Ritchie denies he is out to make a quick buck or to build an even larger commercial database of names, addresses and numbers. Instead, he claimed, the operation is designed to be self-financing.

"The only reason the poll exists is because of the premium-rate line," he said. "The faxes cost a fortune to send, so the people who pay pounds 1 are paying for those who do not respond."

His only motive was to put pressure on the Government to pull out of Europe: "You should not get into bed with someone who does not fancy you."

The official Referendum Party deplores his tactics. "We would put 100 miles between us and whoever is behind this," said press spokesman Bernard Shrimsley. He said his party had been deluged with complaints from supporters and the public about the poll.

"There is nothing we can do to stop it - the word 'referendum' is not a privately owned word. They have nothing to do with us," he said.

Such a reaction, said Mr Ritchie, was not unexpected, but was not representative of the Referendum Party as a whole: "They are knocking it officially, but some of their candidates have been on to us wanting to collaborate with us further."

Vodafone, which supplies the 0331 lines, said it had received complaints but was powerless to prevent Mr Ritchie sending his faxes.

A spokesman for the official watchdog, the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS) said it was looking into the faxes. "We are investigating it at the moment. We are not sure yet if it is a scam. SPER is an organisation nobody knows anything about."

The ICSTIS spokesman said it was especially anxious to establish whether the results would be advertised, as claimed. Mr Ritchie maintained he had commitments from two newspapers to publish the findings ahead of the election.