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When ni hao on phone doesn't always mean friendly hello

By Harvey Dzodin | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-09-05 10:09

In the old days around the new Millennium, when we foreigners were repeatedly approached on the street by strangers greeting us with a friendly "DVD, DVD", some newcomers thought it was Chinese for "hello". Now numerous times in the day or night when we hear a stranger on the phone saying "ni hao" we know that's short for "I want to sell you something"-- something often illegal.

Life in China is quite marvelous but like anywhere there can be annoyances like weather, traffic and air quality. But the one annoyance that seems to be on top of everyone's list is this daily diet of unsolicited phone calls, and to a lesser extent, short messages and faxes. They drive me nuts, but solutions do exist.

China can take advantage of the experience of other countries in crafting solutions.

Based on personal experience, the best example is the mixed record of my own country, the United States. China can learn from its successes and failures.

Many of us were plagued by telemarketing calls, from legitimate businesses as well as from scam artists, even in the days that preceded mobile phones. Because in that era, most people were likely to be home at dinner time, most calls came while people were eating. It's not too much of a stretch to say that it was enough to cause indigestion to many!

In 2003 the US National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry was established. It was a database for individual households to register to not get most telemarketing calls. Business-to-business calls were unaffected.

Three-quarters of a million people signed up on the first day of registration alone at a peak rate of 60,000 times a minute. A poll taken the next year found that respondents who registered experienced a significant reduction in nuisance marketing calls. These early adapters of yesteryear clearly felt like some of us who are currently being bombarded by such calls on a daily basis.

The DNC Registry worked well for number of years until advances in technology neutered its effectiveness. Two developments made enforcement difficult.

First, virtually cost-free VOIP technology meant that callers could be located beyond US borders and therefore almost impossible to catch. That's why of the $1.2 billion levied in fines, less than 10 percent has been collected.

Second, robocall blasts sent simultaneously to thousands of phones, also at virtually no cost, and with misleading names and numbers, a practice known as spoofing, appeared. These misled the answering party to believe that the calls were legitimate and were nearly always impossible to trace.

Indeed there are apps that can help largely eliminate or reduce the flood of unwanted nuisance calls but as with most things electronic, the bad guys are usually one step ahead of the good guys. App developers are simply no match for them.

So what's to be done in China?

Most nuisance calls in China seem not to be robocalls yet, so a DNR registry backed up by punitive fines and aggressive enforcement could help. (I am sure that there actually are some people who don't mind these calls. Maybe they're the only calls that some lonely folks receive.)

Telephone companies are in the best position to be gatekeepers to catch and block unwanted calls, both individual and robocalls. Their effectiveness in doing this task can even be good for their marketing. Primus, a Canadian telephone company, proves the point. The company offers and features "Telemarketing Guard" to block such calls and almost 90 percent of their customers cite this one service as the reason that they maintain their accounts with the company.

We can't do anything about the weather (yet) and the pollution and traffic congestion are on their way to being resolved. In the meanwhile, there is a way forward on negating the nuisance of unwanted telemarketing and robocalls.

Dr. Harvey Dzodin is a non-resident researcher of the Center for China and Globalization. He was vice president of the ABC TV Network in New York and Legal Counsel in the Jimmy Carter administration.

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