If there is one thing that keeps Nigerian telecom subscribers on edge these days, it is the constant harassment from unwanted calls and text messages to their mobile phones. This assault is usually perpetrated by the telecoms network operators (MTN Nigeria, Globacom, Airtel, and Etisalat), value-added service providers, telemarketers, and individuals, including scammers.
The unwanted phone calls otherwise known as robocalls interrupt subscribers during meetings, discussion, lunch, work, and even during sleep. The unscrupulous companies or people behind these calls use auto-dialers (a device or software for calling telephone numbers automatically) to make thousands of calls in a minute. They bombard consumers of telecom services with unending sales pitches for unwanted services without any regard for the consumers’ rights not to be bothered especially at odd hours. Worst still is the fact that some scammers utilise this technology to defraud people in the guise of providing products or services to them. Many consumers have fallen victims of these scam callers.
Nigerian consumers are frustrated because they do not know how to put an end to such constant harassment. Some usually ignore calls with the caller ID showing a coded number because such calls are mainly robocalls. Unfortunately, the robocallers have also gone ahead to counter this move. Many now use the normal GSM numbers for such calls to deceive subscribers into answering the calls. Olabisi Olaniyan considers this trend very worrisome. “Usually I ignore calls coming from a coded number but these people have changed tactics by using the normal telephone numbers and one would have picked the call before realising that there is no one at the other end but just a recorded voice,” says Olaniyan.
In many developed countries, robocalls have been declared illegal if made without the written consent of the receiver. Telecoms service providers are required by law to open a “Do Not Call” register of those who do not wish to receive robocalls. Despite this, the problems still persists in these countries. While telephone companies in countries that are warring against robocalls are not doing enough to stop the menace, the ones in countries like Nigeria are not doing anything at all to protect their subscribers from the scourge. These telecom operators allow all manner of value-added service providers to use their platforms to send robocalls to consumers on their networks without any recourse to the rights of the subscribers or how they feel about these annoying intrusions into their privacy.
Similarly, Nigerian consumers are not spared the menace of spam SMS, that is, unwanted or unsolicited text messages. Some of these include unsubscribed caller tunes, jokes, music and news alerts, as well as tips on fashion, love, health, fitness, security, investments, and many others, all at the expense of the subscribers whose credits are depleted. Moreover, these spam text messages have an annoying characteristic of clogging up the inbox of subscribers’ mobile phones thus forcing people to go through the pain of deleting them to free space.
Adeolu Ogunbanjo, President, National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers (NATCOMS), at a recent industry consumer advisory forum described unsolicited SMS as “a modern scourge, plaguing our mobile phones with unwanted adverts and offers, often from network operators and dodgy companies”. Ogunbanjo noted that network operators often send unsolicited SMS like automatic data plan renewal to their subscribers who do not ask for the service, and then deduct the service cost from their airtime credit without the subscribers’ consent. According to him, the service providers also collaborate with the value-added service providers to offer ringtone and several information services to subscribers even when such services are not subscribed to. “It involves sending an unsolicited SMS to the subscriber that a particular service is activated at a cost of between ₦20.00 to ₦100.00 and that it will be automatically renewed by expiration,” Ogunbanjo said. The NATCOMS president noted that Nigerian telecom subscribers, currently put at 150 million are losing approximately ₦30 billion monthly and ₦360 billion yearly to unauthorized data plan renewals and credit depletion.
He cited the case of Dupe Owosina, an octogenarian who received the text message, “Thank you for choosing SECURITY AND SAFETY TIPS service on your Airtel Mobile. You will be charged NG₦5.0 every day.” All attempts by her to put an end to this exploitation were to no avail. Alaba Bola Sunday’s experience with his service provider could frustrate any subscriber; it was like a drama of the absurd as shown from the exchange of messages between him and his service provider thus:
Network Operator: Y’ello, your product Magic Voice is activated and ₦50.00 is deducted from your account. The next rental collection time is 2015-10-29. To unsubscribe, send STOP7 to 757.
Bola Sunday: STOP7 (He sent STOP7 to 757).
Network Operator: Y’ello, your product Manchester United is activated / scheduled to be activated and ₦100.00 is deducted from your account. The next rental collection time is 2015-11-06. To cancel the subscription, send STOPMU to 55227.
Bola Sunday: STOPMU (He sent STOPMU to 55227).
Network Operator: Y’ello, your product Chelsea is activated / scheduled to be activated and ₦50.00 is deducted from your account. The next rental collection time is 2015-11-11. To cancel the subscription, send STOPCH to 55227.
Bola Sunday: STOPCH (He sent STOPCH to 55227).
Network Operator: Y’ello, you have not subscribed to Chelsea or has unsubscribed from it.
Each time he followed the direction to unsubscribe, another service was added.
occassion but they kept on renewing the data and making deductions from my credit,” he said.
Grace Ajayi is still seething with anger over the pain Glo caused her last year. “My little baby suddenly developed fever and I needed to take her to the hospital but I couldn’t find our hospital card. I ran out of the house to buy a recharge card of ₦1,000 and loaded it. I called his number only to receive a voice message that I do not have enough credit to make the call. When I checked my phone I saw a text message informing me that my data subscription has been renewed, thus compounding my problems because I didn’t have any other money on me and my neighbours had all gone out. I resorted to self-medication until my husband arrived and then we rushed her to the hospital,” she recalled. Steve Okpara also told Consumer Life that Glo deducted money from his airtime for a text message on fitness sent to his mobile phone several times. The complaints are myriad and cut across all networks.
Although robocalls and unsolicited text messages can be used legally for political campaigns, public service announcements or emergency announcements, these services should not be allowed to be abused for financial gains of the abusers. Curiously, robocalls service providers have a huge database of GSM phone numbers of subscribers across the country including their relevant biodata and this is to ensure that their customers deliver the voice messages to the targeted subscribers. Many consumers are wondering how information registered with their service providers end up with these bulk and voice SMS providers without their consent. These phone numbers and information are allegedly sold to their customers who use them to send the annoying and distressing text or voice SMS to subscribers. While the robocall service providers smile to the banks, the hapless consumers suffer depression, undue harassment, and emotional and psychological torture.
At a recent Town Hall Meeting in Sagamu, Ogun State, the sector regulator, NCC, urged service providers to enlighten their subscribers on the steps to be taken to lodge a complaint on their respective networks. The agency also urged consumers not to allow their rights to be infringed upon by telecom service operators. “Consumers have the right to information that is clear, complete and accurate, and in a language that will be understood to guide them to make informed decisions when making their choices,” said Abdullahi Maikano, Director, Consumer Affairs Bureau of NCC. He advised consumers to seek redress whenever they are dissatisfied with the way their complaints are handled by the service operators by calling NCC toll free centre number 622. He, however, said complainants should first contact their service providers with their complaints and ensure they obtain a complaint ticket number before contacting NCC for redress.
Telecom subscribers in Nigeria are, however, not convinced NCC and the service providers are doing enough to address their plight. They want telecom service providers to invest in and deploy call-blocking technology to counter the menace. The regulators have also been called upon to regulate the sector to guarantee protection for consumers. There are also views that telecom subscribers whose rights are violated by the service providers should be compensated. This flagrant abuse of the phone technology will remain a nightmare to consumers unless steps are taken to curb the menace.