Thursday, 13 March 2008

Please DON’T Call Me

If you reply to a “Please Call Me” SMS, you will be the victim of a scam to bill you R50.50 per second of air time. That’s R3300 for one minute! In dollars, that’s more than $400!

Okay, now you can relax: it’s only an urban legend. Starting life as an e-mail warning at the time the Call Me service was launched by Vodacom, it has yet again resurfaced on the grapevine, doing the rounds by word of mouth.

The Daily News first carried the story on 30 September 2004, under the heading Worry over e-mail. Bhavna Sookha summed up the hoax:

According to the e-mail, recipients of "please call me" messages received from unknown 072 numbers should be ignored.

The e-mail also says that after one makes a call to the "please call me" number, which is an unknown number, the person that answers the phone will try and keep you on the line for quite some time, asking stupid questions and running up your phone bill.

It was also alleged that these calls were being charged at R50.50 per second and that the receiver of the call was pocketing the money. If they managed to keep the victim on the phone for at least 10 seconds they would make at least R505.

The fraudulent e-mail then went on to say that service provider, Vodacom, was urging the community to be aware and not respond to SMSs (short message service) from strange or unknown numbers.

Sookha had Mthobi Tyamzashe, chief communications officer of the Vodacom group, debunk the e-mail as a hoax. According to Tyamzashe, he wrote, "please call me" is an authentic Vodacom service so popular it is used more than a billion times every month.

"It is a free, person-to-person service that automatically attaches the sender's cellphone number to the "please call me" message," said Tyamzashe." This means there is no third party involved and therefore it is impossible for any private individual to derive an income through the 'please call me' service."

Although the e-mail died, the urban legend lives on. What brought it back to life?

Ironically, the networks themselves added the necessary elements of myth to the Call Me service during 2007, during hearings by the telecommunications regulator Icasa into the high interconnection fees networks charge callers from other networks who phone numbers on their networks – an amount of R1.25 per call, which has never been justified from a cost perspective.

During the hearings, MTN argued that a quarter of its customers in SA never made a single call, but did receive incoming calls. MTN could afford to keep those customers connected, claimed Nkateko Nyoka, MTN’s head of regulatory affairs, only because of the profit it made from delivering each call.

He warned that any interference in the fees that telecoms operators charge each other to route calls between their networks could force up the cost of phone calls and prevent poor people from ever joining a cellular network.

In Business Day on 17 May 2007, under the beautifully ironic heading, Call-cost model aids poor, says MTN, Lesley Stones quoted Nyoka as saying that high termination fees intensified the competition to sign up the poorest users because the operators could make money from their incoming calls.

The disingenuousness of this statement is further compounded by his statement:

“Inbound revenue is the key to connecting people with no disposable income.”

If the connection fees were low, no operator would want to serve the poor and currently unconnected people, he added for good measure.

The next day, Vodacom piled on the irony. Again, as quoted by Lesley Stones, this time under the heading Poor will be silenced if cell fees are cut, they said that cashless customers who send 18-million text messages a day asking wealthier friends to call them back could be axed from Vodacom’s network if the interconnection fee for delivering the incoming calls are cut:

Vodacom’s government relations and regulatory executive Pakamile Pongwana said that radical cuts forced on its network in Tanzania had unintended consequences, as Vodacom had less income to spend on expanding its network.

There was a fine balance between the wholesale and retail prices, and SA’s current regime had lowered the cost of cellphone ownership so that even the poorest people could get connected, said Pongwana.

Vodacom could not justify keeping a significant proportion of its pre-paid users on its network if there was not enough profit in delivering incoming calls to them, added Karl Lawrenz, its executive of regulatory projects.

If cost-based termination rates were imposed, it would not be sustainable to retain those low-spending users, he said.

No mention of just how much money the networks made from the actual calls resulting from the call-me service! And no mention of the fact that they had been provided with near-monopoly licenses partly with a mandate to provide access to communications to all South Africans.

Business day reader Andrew Fraser summed up the public’s incredulity at these statements with a letter to the editor headed Ring of falsehood. It read, in part:

Your article had me vacillating between amusement and horror… According to the article, MTN argues that 25% of its customers never make a call, and that the profit from interconnection allows it to keep those customers connected.

… The reason that 25% of those customers never make a call is precisely because the price of making a call is so high, and that price is driven up by the astronomical interconnect fees... It is unethical and corrupt to claim that higher profits benefit the people paying for the services. Higher profits benefit shareholders — nobody else.

The interconnect hearings were probably a low point in the networks’ efforts to display their commitment to the development of the country, as opposed to commitment to their own profits. The manner in which the Call Me service was conscripted to their argument added dramatically to the obfuscation around how it really worked, and created an impression that it was a highly profitable service. How could it make such large profits? Surely by overcharging hideously on the resultant calls?

The urban legend was reborn in the wake of those hearings, and is now enjoying a healthy afterlife, long after the e-mail hoax was laid to rest.

(* On 11 October 2007, according to, Vodacom announced that text ads would be sold on Please Call Me, “its free call-back service claimed to generate up to 20 million messages a day and reaches both the lower and higher end of the market”. A useful revenue generator, but also one that makes the contents of those crammed Call Me messages even more confusing. Watch this lack of space… )

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