How the UAE is hanging up on cold calling

Sales calls are not inherently bad, but new rules could leave intrusive and persistent telemarketing tactics on hold

Consumers also have their part to play, by reporting breaches of the rules on cold calling to the authorities. Getty
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At first glance, an unsolicited telemarketing call should not feel as intrusive as it does. After all, it takes only a moment to decline a call or hang up. But our phones are an indispensable part of our modern lives, particularly the smartphones that are never far from our reach. Therefore, being interrupted by cold callers ringing in the middle of a busy workday or during our private time at home feels much the same as any other kind of unwanted direct approach.

In addition to the irritation it often causes, the telemarketing format can also be hijacked. Scammers and other fraudsters can pose as telemarketers to trick the unwary and the vulnerable into sharing important personal data.

It is a situation that the UAE is taking further steps to remedy. The authorities set out plans on Sunday that will clamp down on overly persistent cold callers, with companies facing fines of up to Dh150,000 ($40,838) and the threat of losing their operating licences if they break strict new rules. Among these new regulations is the prohibition of such calls outside the hours between 9am and 6pm, and barring telemarketers from making a call on the same day if the consumer has declined or ended the phone call.

Although sales calls are not inherently a bad thing, it is their overuse that can cause problems and the UAE authorities have taken action before. In 2011, the Central Bank declared a ban on banks and finance companies from offering loans and services to people who had not sought out their business. In 2022, the Real Estate Regulatory Agency at the Dubai Land Department fined a property broker Dh50,000 for such behaviour.

The unpopularity and intrusion of repeated cold calling has been recognised by many other countries too. Like the Emirates, the US, UK, Australia and India all have op-out or do-not-call lists; companies who cold-call consumers who have added their name to such lists face fines and other legal penalties. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is a comprehensive piece of legislation that permits companies to call only those private citizens who have given consent beforehand. In addition, all of the above countries and the EU have banned cold calls between certain hours of the day, and many outlaw such calls on public holidays.

However, legislation is one thing – enforcement is another. A look at the relative success of such measures offers a mixed picture. On one hand, some countries have issued major fines for cold-calling infractions; in February, Italy’s data protection authority fined a unit of Enel Energia – the country’s largest utility company – €79 million (Dh312.1 million) over alleged mishandling of electricity and gas customers' personal data for telemarketing purposes.

But some companies continue to flout the rules, in part because what governments might deem reasonable enforcement is not enough to deter corporate giants. The much-vaunted €1.2 billion fine issued against tech giant Meta by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner in May last year is only a fraction of that company’s annual profits.

Meanwhile, cold calling, despite its evident unpopularity – a UAE study in 2021 found that 63 per cent of those surveyed supported tighter data protection laws – remains a go-to tactic for many businesses. This is because such calls are relatively cheap to make, offer immediate feedback, and – unlike emails – are harder for would-be customers to ignore. In addition, it can be cumbersome for consumers to sign up for do-not call lists and time-consuming to prove that they rejected the service or product in the initial conversation.

While improved regulation is welcome, consumers must remember that it is in their power to make a difference. It is tempting to get on with one’s day after declining yet another unwanted call, but failing to report breaches of the rules leaves regulators with less evidence to work on and sends a signal to unscrupulous companies that they can carry on with such tactics. While the UAE is taking more steps to regulate this industry and protect the public, we also have our part to play in turning irritation into positive action.

Published: June 11, 2024, 3:00 AM