How spammers get your number

2013-06-09 06:30

So what makes Barry’s Plumbing and Electrical think you’re in need of their services? Based on what information does DirectAxis assume you might be interested in taking out a loan with them? How does the DA know when to remind you to vote for them in a by-election in your ward? After all, your ballot was secret … right?

It seems the meaning of your right to secrecy and privacy when it comes to your personal information is interpreted very broadly and somewhat nebulously in the world of direct marketing, specifically that done via SMS.

And the question we all ask when receiving such SMSes is always: “How did they get my number?”

Alastair Tempest of the Direct Marketing Association of SA, a section 21 company that “aims to protect both the industry and consumers from unethical or ignorant practitioners”, says there are “a number of ways” direct marketers obtain consumers’ information.

These, according to Tempest, include customer databases, which are compiled, for example, by means of customer loyalty cards; shared information from other companies in a noncompeting field, for example, an insurance company, might partner with a tourism company to provide insurance; list brokers who organise rentals of lists that either they have created themselves, for example, from public records; or from other companies willing to share their data.

Some list brokers, says Tempest, “are subsidiaries of large companies with extensive databases which they can rent to marketers”. In some cases, lists can also be “combined, analysed or segmented to give a good picture of the individual”.

The main problem, according to him, arises “when marketers fail to identify their potential customers properly and start to ‘broadcast’ email or SMS campaigns without researching the right or most interested audience. People then feel they are being spammed.”

A statement issued last week by SMSPortal, a bulk-SMS service provider, calls for tougher government action on spam SMSes.

This because, according to the statement, “some messaging providers send messages via unauthorised routes in order to bypass the jurisdiction of the Wireless Application Service Provider’s Association (Waspa, the mobile content and bulk-SMS regulator).

Tracking down the origin of SMSes using this kind of routing is hard, so the originators are seldom held accountable.”

Recent laws in the form of the Consumer Protection Act and the Protection of Personal Information Act prohibit unsolicited direct marketing, whether it’s from Barry the plumber or even Helen Zille herself.

Part B of chapter 2 of the Consumer Protection Act – which came into effect in 2011 with the aim of prohibiting unfair marketing and business practices, among others – stipulates that the “right of every person to privacy includes the right to … pre-emptively block any approach or communication … if the approach or communication is primarily for the purpose of direct marketing”.

Chapter 8 of the Protection of Personal Information Act, which is set to become law during the course of this year, is as firm, stipulating that “the processing of personal information for the purpose of direct marketing by means of … SMSes or (email) is prohibited” unless consent is given.

According to a statement issued by Pieter Streicher, the managing director of messaging platform, until free opt-out from direct SMS marketing becomes possible, “it is technically illegal to send both unsolicited direct marketing as well as solicited direct marketing via SMS”.

This because the Consumer Protection Act also stipulates that “no person may charge a consumer a fee for making a demand” in terms of either opting out entirely or “registering a pre-emptive block”.

And as we’re all aware, South African cellphone networks do not support the sending of free SMSes.

Part of the mandate of the state’s Consumer Protection Act enforcement agency, the National Consumer Commission, is to “provide for improved standards of consumer information” and to “prohibit certain unfair marketing and business practices”.

Repeated attempts to get comment from the National Consumer Commission regarding what work it is doing to enforce the provisions of clauses in the Consumer Protection Act pertaining to direct marketing have been unsuccessful.

All emails sent to addresses supplied either on its website or that of the trade and industry department bounce back as “undeliverable” or delayed, and telephone numbers supplied online either do not work or lead to an automated answering system that kept us on hold for about 30 minutes on each attempt, with no assistance.

In April, IT news website reported on a complaint lodged by a consumer to Waspa after having received SMS spam from Cellfind and Blue Label Data Solutions, both subsidiaries of JSE-listed Blue Label Telecoms.

In the report, it was established that “mobile numbers to which unsolicited messages were sent, may have been obtained from public sources like the Deeds and Cipro public databases”.

A representative for Blue Label Data Solutions confirmed to that they use data in the public domain to gain access to mobile numbers for their SMS campaigns, and that the public domain is the main source from which they obtain data, mainly in the form of ID numbers.

These ID numbers are then run through credit bureaus to obtain further information, like cellphone numbers.

Ultimately, according to the report, Waspa’s adjudicator ruled that Cellfind and Blue Label Data Solutions were not able to produce any evidence that the complainant consented to receive the direct marketing message, and both entities were fined R20 000 each for sending SMS spam.

When asked if he thought that direct SMS marketing is carried out in an ethical manner, the Direct Marketing Association of SA’s Tempest said: “In my view, SMS marketing is the most important form of marketing going forward for South Africa. Marketers tend to concentrate on the 10% of SA’s population who have access to the internet and who have a recognisable income. However, we need also to look at the 90% whose main form of communication is the cellphone. Therefore, we should be careful with SMS marketing and practise it in an ethical and honest way.”

He added that the organisation’s complaints department receives “very few” complaints on SMS marketing particularly, and that most complaints are about telephone marketing and email spam.

In the end, Tempest argues, it works in favour of marketers to act ethically, and not to be perceived as spammers. He says: “Maybe it sounds ironic, but the more the marketer knows about the person, the better the targeting of marketing messages will become.”

And a national opt-out database, he says, as provisioned for by the Consumer Protection Act, “makes a lot of sense – it is not just a waste of a marketer’s time and resources to contact someone who does not want to receive their messages, but it is also a reputational issue too”.

The national opt-out register

According to Tempest, the national opt-out register, or do-not-contact list, is run by the Direct Marketing Association of SA. “We started this back in 2006 and it now contains more than 74 000 individuals,” he says.

Consumers can choose the means of communication they would like to opt out from. For example, they could register for email only, or register for all media – email, SMS, land line phone and direct mail.

“We ask for the ID number of the registrant to verify their identity. Our members must pass their marketing lists for potential customers through the register, which then identifies anyone on the list who has opted out, and these people need to be removed from the marketing list.

“The register cannot be accessed and is stored in such a way that it would make no sense if hacked. All companies should themselves have an opt-out list, also known as an internal suppression list, on to which consumers can demand to be placed,” says Tempest.

» To add your name to the national opt-out register, go to

» For complaints relating to SMS spam, call the Direct Marketing Association of SA on 0861 362 362

» For any queries, tips or suggestions, email

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.