UAE study reveals cold calling and spam messages highly ineffective

Customer information, often sold illicitly, fuels scourge of unwanted marketing

The Real Estate Regulatory Agency (Rera) in Dubai has said those found to be cold calling can face fines of up to Dh50,000. Getty Images
The Real Estate Regulatory Agency (Rera) in Dubai has said those found to be cold calling can face fines of up to Dh50,000. Getty Images

A survey of cold calling and spam emails lifted the lid on how ineffective unwanted marketing material is.

A UAE study found that three people responded from seven million text messages sent.

To make matters worse for the marketers, nobody completed a purchase after visiting the related e-commerce website.

Researchers surveyed 700 residents, half of whom were frustrated by the amount of unsolicited marketing material they received, while 63 per cent supported tighter data protection laws.

If you visit a website you expect to be exposed to advertising, but if someone gets hold of your phone number and calls you, that is much more intrusive

Andrew Laity, Inphota CEO

In 2011, the UAE's Central Bank declared a ban on cold calling. This prevented banks and finance companies from offering loans and services to people who had not sought out their business.

But the practice is widespread in various forms – often under the guise of prompting people to accept deals and special offers.

In real estate it is widely used to promote rentals and properties for sale.

Andrew Laity, chief executive of UAE-based Inphota, a company that sources online data to improve business marketing, led the research.

“We try to work with businesses to show that if people get spammed all the time they become very resilient towards it,” he said.

“Our aim is to help create greater commercial results for these institutions.

“I wanted to understand if people were aware of the amount of messages they received or if they were immune to it.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Nick Webster. News. Andrew Laity. A survey of spam has lifted the lid on just how ineffective unwanted marketing material is despite data packages containing customer information sold for thousands of dirhams. Wednesday, March 17th, 2021. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Andrew Laity said most cold callers and spammers are wasting their time. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“The survey showed people were annoyed by these messages and that is becoming counter productive to the brands,” Mr Laity said.

Inphota found 44 per cent of consumers still received communications from a company they had asked to desist from sending messages and remove their details from databases.

A further 54 per cent said unsolicited communication would stop them using that company completely.

Most of the data analysed came from shared details when a customer signed up for a product or service warranty.

Other information was gleaned from urchin traffic monitor (UTM) tagging, a website marker that allows users to trace online visitors.

Property, restaurants and traditional businesses moving into e-commerce were most likely to engage in spam marketing, Mr Laity said.

“If you visit a website you expect to be exposed to advertising, but if someone gets hold of your phone number and calls you, that is much more intrusive,” he said.

“I have been copied into emails where clients are sending unencrypted information on group emails, which is a crazy security risk.

Dubizzle - on which millions of items and goods are sold - said it was working to tackle fake property listings and bogus links to mirrored sites. Getty Images
Consumers are often angered by unsolicited messages, which can damage brands. Getty Images

“A lot of the time companies are not using this data maliciously [but] they are just unaware of the risks involved of it being procured elsewhere.”

According to a 2018 report on email delivery by tech company Return Path, 6 per cent of sales and marketing global emails were blocked as spam.

It evaluated a sample of two billion promotional emails sent to consumers between July 2017 and June 2018 across 140 mailbox providers and found a further 10 per cent went undelivered.

Junior marketeers under pressure to hit unrealistic targets or on commission-only roles were most likely to enter the spam market, researchers said.

With its diverse sales workforce, the UAE has varying standards of data privacy and ethical behaviour, with no laws governing the use of personal information.

Insiders said data packages containing everything from Emirates ID numbers, phone numbers, addresses and passport expiry dates were regularly hawked around selling industries, particularly the property market.

The Real Estate Regulatory Agency in Dubai said those found to be cold calling can face fines of up to Dh50,000 ($13,615), with rule-breaking agents facing a month's suspension.

One estate agent, who did not want to be named, said the practice was widespread in Dubai.

“Everyone is doing it,” he said. “In the real estate world, data is much more targeted so you get to know who owns the property, their nationality and other useful information.

“If agents know who owns a villa or apartment, they can deal with them directly to sell or rent their property. That is the knowledge you’re paying for.”

Data package fees depend on how current the information is.

A tranche of property owner information leaked from one major developer was on offer for a monthly subscription of Dh1,500, or a one-off fee of Dh6,000 for six months of data.

That information is then used to cold-call potential customers.

“Financial services people are notorious for this," the agent said.

"If you own a property in Dubai I could probably tell you your passport number, when it expires and your Emirates ID number."

Updated: March 18, 2021 05:05 PM

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