Every year, direct marketers "cold call" thousands of people. Most calls are a hassle. Some are scams. Here's how to fight back!

How telemarketers find you

If a telemarketing company "cold calls", there's a chance it got your number from the phone book. But there are a host of other sources.

Marketing companies trawl through public registers – such as the local council's list of building consents – looking for personal information to help their sales pitch. Many companies, and even some government agencies, sell personal details to telemarketers.

Marketing companies trawl through public registers looking for personal information to help their sales pitch.
Marketing companies trawl through public registers looking for personal information to help their sales pitch.

Anytime you enter a competition, fill out a warranty card or subscribe to a magazine, the company will probably add you to its marketing database. It may on-sell your details (Consumer NZ doesn't).

If you're a TrustPower customer and you pay your bill on time, you'll automatically become a TrustPower "Friend". One reader told us how TrustPower telemarketers cold-called and tried to convince her to switch her toll account from TelstraClear to ihug. TrustPower says customers are given the option about whether they want to receive marketing information when they first join up.

What can you do?

Getting them to stop calling
The NZ Marketing Association operates "do not mail" and "do not call" registers, available free to consumers (not businesses). If you don't want to receive cold calls from telemarketers, your home contact details can be added to the list.

The Association's 500 members use the list to find out who doesn't want to be called. But it's not foolproof - you'll still get calls from companies that aren't members of the Association. There are similar schemes overseas.

To use the NZ Marketing Association registers (available only to consumers, not businesses):

  • Visit the Marketing Association website and add yourself to the 'do not call' and 'do not mail' lists.
  • Email the Marketing Assocation service (contactus@marketing.org.nz) with your full name, home address and home telephone number.
  • Or write (with your full name, address and telephone number) to Do Not Mail and Do Not Call Registers, Marketing Association, P O Box 47681, Ponsonby, Auckland.

Dealing with problems
First, try to resolve the matter with the company concerned - put your complaint in writing. If this doesn't work, write to the Association with supporting material and keep copies of all correspondence relating to your complaint: it will help resolve disputes involving members and, sometimes, non-members. There is no fee.

Complaints the Association receives about New Zealand telemarketers are usually about lack of communication and the late or non-delivery of goods. These can often be resolved.

You can also take a complaint to the Disputes Tribunal . But, if the company was based overseas, you're probably out of luck.

Your legal rights
If you think a telemarketer has treated you unfairly, or misled or deceived you while you were buying a product, you have protection under the Fair Trading Act and can complain to the Commerce Commission.

If the telemarketer sends you goods that are faulty or aren't fit for the purpose you bought them for, that's a breach of the [Consumer Guarantees Act] and you're entitled to a refund.

The Fair Trading Act also applies if you're cold-called by a telemarketer selling goods or services. This Act gives you a cooling-off period of 5 working days to cancel if you sign up over the phone but then change your mind. See Uninvited direct sales for more information.

If you gave out personal information about yourself for one purpose and it's been used for another, you have grounds for a complaint to the Privacy Commission. You can also complain if you think an organisation has information about you but won't let you see it.

Your privacy

The Privacy Act requires anyone collecting your personal information to tell you the reason it is being collected, what it will be used for, and who will have access. (See our Privacy law report for more information.)

The Act prohibits anyone from gathering personal information for one purpose and using it for another, although there are some exceptions.

That's why most forms you fill out these days ask if it's okay for the information to be used for marketing purposes. Not surprisingly, this request is normally buried in the fine print.

Problems can arise if your details are in a public register and the register's purpose isn't clear.

The Privacy Act places limits on when government departments and businesses can give out personal information. Some departments, like the Inland Revenue Department (IRD), also have specific controls in their own legislation. For example, the IRD can't give out your income details to anyone - except for very limited purposes such as data-matching with other government departments to help catch benefit fraudsters.

The Privacy Act also means you have a right to see any personal information an organisation holds about you. You should not be charged.

If the organisation doesn't respond within 20 days, or you believe it may not have shown all the information it has on you, or it fails to correct any mistakes, you can ask the Privacy Commissioner to review the matter.

Collecting for charity

While most telemarketing charities are bona fide, you've got no way of knowing how much of your donation is going to the charity and how much is being pocketed by the telemarketers themselves.

The Charities Commission is responsible for registering and monitoring charities in New Zealand, under the Charities Act 2005. One of the requirements of registration is that a charity has to provide information on annual returns.

If you are in doubt about whether a charity is genuine or not you can search on the Charities Register website. There is also a free information line: 0508 charities (0508 242 748).

Registration as a charity is voluntary. However, from July 2008 only charities that are registered are eligible for tax-exempt status.

Market research

Most professional market research companies operating in New Zealand are members of the Market Research Society of New Zealand (MRSNZ). They operate to a code of practice designed to maintain high professional and ethical standards and to protect your rights.

Those taking part in research by members of the MRSNZ should be assured that their identity will not be revealed without explicit consent and that the purpose of conducting the interview is to collect data, not to sell anything – no sales approach will be made to them as a result of their having taken part.

The MRSNZ provides the following advice for dealing with market research companies (or those claiming to be conducting market research):

  • The researcher should identify themselves and the name of the company they are calling from.
  • They will expressly state that they are conducting research or a survey.
  • They should politely ask you for your consent to participate in the research exercise.
  • They should give you at least a general idea of the survey topic.
  • They should give you an indication of how long it will take.
  • They should advise you if the call is being monitored for quality management purposes and give you the company’s contact telephone numbers at the end of the interview.
  • If requested, they should give you their supervisor's name and contact details.
  • If you decline to be interviewed then they will not put any pressure on you to continue.

If any of the above does not happen, they may not be operating under the MRSNZ code of practice.

If you have concerns that research may not be legitimate, you can ask the following questions:

  • Are you calling me to conduct market research or will you try to sell me something?
  • Can you provide me with the name of your company and contact details so I can verify that you are a legitimate research firm?
  • Can you give me the phone number of your supervisor?

These questions should be handled confidently by legitimate researchers or ethical sales people.

While not all legitimate market research companies are MRSNZ members, if they are you can be confident that they are operating to a code of conduct that ensures they are not misleading you and that your privacy will be protected.

For more information and to check whether a company is a member of the MRSNZ, see www.mrsnz.org.nz.

Our view

  • Don't make instant buying decisions. Wait until you've seen all the details in writing.
  • If you think you're being called from overseas, don't buy. It'll be almost impossible to track them down if something goes wrong.
  • Watch what you say. In several cases we investigated, consumers' recollections of what they agreed to were wrong.
  • Keep records. Note the date of the call, the telemarketer's details, the conditions of the sale and any promises made by the telemarketer.
  • Make sure you can return goods if you find them unsatisfactory. Find out the time period and who'll pay the postage.
  • Choose to be billed instead of paying upfront. That way, you'll get to see the goods before you pay. If you can't do that, pay by credit card – if there's a problem, you might be able to get a chargeback.
  • If you're caught out by misleading or aggressive marketing, don't pay the bill. Contact the company immediately to seek a refund.
  • If you find it hard to stand up to aggressive callers, get an answerphone or messaging service. It will screen your calls and you only need to respond to the ones you want. It's a small cost for peace of mind.
  • Use the NZ Marketing Association Name Removal Service (see 'What can you do?' above).