Humble telemarketers were not the problem

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Humble telemarketers were not the problem


Lee Eun-joo

A 40-year-old woman, the breadwinner for her three-member family, works as a telemarketer for a local insurance company. She earns between 1 million and 2 million won ($926 and $1,852) a month, depending on her performance. In other words, depending on how many customers she can persuade to stay on the phone while listening to her sales pitch.

It’s not an easy job. The vast majority of people hang up on her immediately. But a few take interest, have a listen, and end up buying an insurance product.

They are her only hope of putting food on her family’s table.

That woman is imaginary, but most telemarketers are known to be in low- and middle-income households that live on a tight budget. Many are women. According to data by the Financial Services Commission, there are 47,000 telemarketers in Korea working for financial companies, including insurance and card companies. That number increases if you also count part-time workers.

These telemarketers have received a lot of attention lately, and not much of it has been sympathetic.

After the personal data of more than 20 million people was leaked by three credit card companies, the country’s financial authorities - the FSC and the Financial Supervisory Service - have been working day and night to come up with measures to prevent similar leaks in the future.

They raised penalties on financial firms that leak customers’ data and advised those companies to collect only a minimum amount of personal information from their clients.

They also suspended financial firms’ phone marketing activities until the end of March to prevent the use of customer data that was stolen from the credit card companies.

The problem for the telemarketing industry was that the massive leak of personal data was by an employee of a credit agency, who sold the data to companies for use in telemarketing.

Concerns were immediately raised by people in the industry because suspending phone marketing operations, even for only two months, meant that telemarketers would lose their jobs overnight.

Financial companies complained because they rely heavily on telemarketers for sales. They urged the financial authorities to rescind their decision, appealing by stating that telemarketers had done nothing wrong and that the regulators had gone too far. The regulators did not answer any of their complaints.

On Tuesday, however, a response was made - not to the telemarketers, but to President Park Geun-hye. That morning, Park ordered the regulators to stick to measures that would not punish innocent victims of the scandal. After a few hours, the regulators announced they would allow phone marketing activities by financial companies from as early as next week.

I believe the FSC and the FSS are doing their best to cope with the data leaks situation by trying to come up with long-term solutions. But I also feel they are not being sufficiently careful, considerate or consistent - the 3Cs. The way the financial authorities have gone back and forth on temporarily stopping telemarketing shows they aren’t really confident in what they are doing.

Recently, I met a friend who works at a foreign financial company, and as soon as he saw me he lamented how the financial regulators have been mishandling the situation. As a Korean, he said, he’s ashamed. The regulators are “stirring more confusion in the industry,” he said, which is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing.

I personally hope that the FSC, FSS, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and other ministries involved take their time, rather than being hasty in coping with the data leaks.

But they shouldn’t take too long. There are many other important economic and financial issues facing the country, like our growing household debt problem, which are just as important and shouldn’t be put aside.

By Lee Eun-joo []

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