Cold calling: They've got your number

Cold calling, that modern scourge, is about to grow more intensive with the publication of a new mobile contacts database. Rob Sharp shivers

Monday 29 June 2009 00:00 BST

It is the opening conversational gambit many of us dread. "Hello, is that Mr Sharp?" Yes it is. "I am calling from [insert banal company name here]. I was wondering whether you'd ever considered buying an inflatable birdbath?"

Cold calls are annoying at the best of times. Yet thanks to a new directory service, companies will have access to our mobile phone numbers as well, potentially, our landlines. No one is safe.

The 118 800 service, launched in the UK last week, allows canvassers, marketeers and salesmen (along with psychotic ex-girlfriends) to be put through directly to the country's mobile phone users. While those people will need to give the caller permission before they take his call, the database has been criticised by campaigners for civil rights. "There are fundamental privacy issues," confirms Simon Davies of Privacy International, a human rights watchdog.

How much do we know about cold calling, this scourge of the honest consumer which seems as susceptible to exploitation as it is an effective means to flog stuff? The first chancers, sorry, telemarketing company, to try to contact people out of the blue to sell products, is said to be the New-Jersey-based telemarketing firm DialAmerica Marketing (slogan: "Others talk. We have proof positive") in the 1950s. Now the firm is the largest privately-owned telemarketing company in the US, generating a whopping $185m in annual revenue. Five decades ago, its employees were charged with the anodyne task of raising funds for sports teams and charities. But their techniques have been adapted for various nefarious purposes.

Anyone familiar with David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross will know about the testosterone-fuelled "boiler room" culture that pits salesmen against each other to secure a sale. This environment puts the salesmen under huge pressure, meaning the most dishonest of them may be tempted to be bend the truth or lean on a customer. A recent trend is to use automated messages, which might say things to the call recipient like: "Don't panic but this is your final notice" (though this was outlawed in the UK in 2003 for those who did not subscribe to a specific service). Another common tactic might be to suggest that the person being called has won a competition; it turns out to be just a "chance to enter". Pyramid schemes owed a lot of their notoriety to telesales' techniques. Customers are identified with a random call before the salesman goes in for the kill later. In the recession, British investors are being duped into buying worthless shares through this method.

The trick to staying out of the firing line is being careful with your tick-in-a-boxes (want more information about knitted sweaters online? Hold your fire). The company behind 118 800, Connectivity, has bought numbers from brokers who buy details from market research firms and online stores (it claims to have 40 per cent of the 42 million numbers regularly used in the UK).

That's not to say everybody cold calling is a bad egg. "There's a danger of a backlash against the availability of numbers in this database," says Michael McGowan, chief executive of DEI International Sale Systems, a New York company which cold calls businesses. "When numbers are too easily available it can annoy consumers, then regulations are introduced to clamp down."

In marketing terms, it might also flop. "You have to consider the economy of scale," says Robert Keitch, joint chief executive of UK's Direct Marketing Association. "They are charging for the numbers. What it's about is trying to get hold of someone for whatever reason and not having the number with you. As a directory you couldn't possibly attempt to use 118 800 on a commercial basis because of the cost and time of getting the information. "

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