Kutub Uddin, a busy person, barely has time to chat or gossip on the phone.
Late last month, he got a call from a Banglalink number and was offered "Bondhu Shondhan" service, an auto-renewable one, at Tk2.67 per day. Kutub was not interested in the service, so he hung up.
However, a few minutes later, he got a message that he had subscribed to the offer. Kutub called the Banglalink customer care centre to unsubscribe. But they could not solve his problem, saying they only dealt with roaming service.
So now Kutub has been paying for a value-added service (VAS) that he did not want. "I have a good social life and many friends. Why would I go for a virtual service to find new friends?"
Later, he lodged a complaint with the authorities concerned but they could not take any action against the mobile operator because of a court order.
Amid the growing number of mobile phone users, such promotional SMS and calls have become a thorn in the flesh for them while the consumer rights protection body and the regulator do nothing significant to protect them from this form of harassment.
For many users, such calls and text messages are an annoying disruption of their days.
Mintu Das, a vegetarian, lives in the capital's Bangla Motor area. Every Friday a text message from Shwapno, a super shop, annoys him with an offer on fresh beef.
"Companies have gone mad," Mintu exclaimed, "they do not even know what to send to whom."
Mobile operators and telemarketing companies have turned mobile users' experience into an unpleasant one with such unwanted services.
However, the operators claim that they have put a limit on SMS and promotional calls, following the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission's (BTRC) instruction.
The customers also have the choice to reject such services, they say.
Any VAS has a two-way authentication and double consent of the user is mandatory to activate such services, Shahed Alam, chief corporate and regulatory officer at Robi Axiata Limited, said.
"If a customer mistakenly activates a service, we investigate it and make an appropriate refund.
"We have invested in an anti-fraud solution to protect customers from unauthorised service activation," Shahed said.
Ankit Sureka, head of corporate communications and sustainability at Banglalink, said, "A subscription can only be made if a customer wants it. Banglalink customers can also use services such as 'Stop all' and 'Do not disturb' if they want to discontinue any service."
Grameenphone said in a statement that as per the BTRC guideline, the customers' consent is necessary to activate any service and it strictly follows the guideline.
Telemarketers target mobile phone users
Mobile phone number is a key identifier information of a person which has to be protected by the mobile operators.
However, there are indications that the operators are sharing the users' contacts with mushrooming telemarketing companies.
These companies are sending mass text messages to users to advertise their clients' products.
When contracted, a bulk SMS marketing company said at the beginning of each year, they collected mobile phone users' information from various source. Besides this, they get users contacts from the mobile operators for masking SMS marketing, is a text message with the sender name in place of the number.
Legal and information technology (IT) experts expressed concerns over the unregulated sharing of customers' personal information. Fraudsters can cheat the mobile users and put their life at risk, too, using this information, they said.
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, a Supreme Court lawyer, opines that sending such unsolicited and irritating messages, calls and emails is both a criminal and civil offence.
"Mobile operators are making money by selling our information though they are not supposed to do so. They do not have any right to make business by using consumers' information. Therefore, it is a serious criminal and civil offence."
He said the mobile operators should be made accountable for this offence.
Sumon Ahmed Sabir, an Information and communications technology (ICT) expert, said sharing consumers' info without their consent is a violation of consumer rights.
"Sending SMS to me without my permission is a violation of consumer rights. So, we need to ask the operators how they can allow communication of commercial SMS without our permission."
"Such telemarketing began in the United States two decades ago. However, using the consumer rights act, they have held things in check," Sumon said.
However, mobile operators claim that they are not sharing the users' information beyond the scope of the law.
Grameenphone said it maintains a strict data protection policy and does not share any user information with other businesses, violating laws.
Robi said it does not share any customer information with a third party.
Banglalink said it is a compliant company and operates complying with all the land rules and regulations.
However, despite several attempts, no comment from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission could be gathered at the time of filing this report.
No remedy yet
Meanwhile, Kutub unsuccessfully tried to get out of the unwanted VAS messaging of his service provider.
He went to the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) on August 27 to file a complaint with the DNCRP – a quasi-judicial government department responsible for hearing and addressing consumer complaints about goods and services – and sought action against the operator.
However, the DNCRP officials told him that they could not take any action against the mobile operator as a court order prevented them from taking any action based on the customers' complaints.
Earlier, on May 17, 2017, the DNCRP had fined Robi Tk4.10 lakh for cheating three customers on three different services.
In May 2017, following a writ petition filed by Robi, the High Court issued an eight-week stay order on the DNCRP, holding it back from making any move against mobile operators, including Robi, based on customers' complaints, said the officials.
After that, around 3,000 complaints were filed with the DNCRP against the four mobile operators but it could not take any action.
DNCRP Deputy Director (Office Laboratory and Law Subdivision) Md Masum Arefin told The Business Standard there was zero progress over the issue. "But we are working with the BTRC which has the regulatory power to deal with the customers' sufferings."
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told The Business Standard that the proceeding gets delayed with Robi taking time for hearing.
"The state party has attempted several times for the final hearing on the writ petition. The last due date for the hearing matter was March 20 but the court was adjourned after a partial hearing. Due to the pandemic, further hearing did not take place."
"However, we will take an initiative to hold the hearing," he added.