Friday, July 10, 2009

118 800


Phonecall, originally uploaded by Dave Gorman.

In September last year I received a text message from a stranger that said, "Oh my God! I can't believe this is Dave Gorman's phone number!" (Only with poor spelling and grammar) I ignored it. It was possible that it was a friend with a new number trying to wind me up... and if it wasn't and some genuine stranger had actually happened upon my number, I guessed they'd probably go away if ignored. I didn't blog about it at the time because when someone's trying to get a reaction out of you, it's really best not to give them one.

But they didn't go away. They called me at 8, 9, midnight and 3am. I ignored all the calls. But being an idiot they didn't think to hide their number, so on an off chance I googled it. Unusually, it turned up. I found the name of the person responsible. he was 19. He was at Surrey University. He played in a horribly disappointing rock band, used to play in a jazz orchestra and had a depressingly illiterate myspace page.

The next day there was silence. But then the next day there were more nuisance calls. I screened all calls that came from unknown or hidden numbers. There were many. Mostly from hidden numbers.

The day after that, work took me to Austria. And on Saturday night, in Austria, I received something like 40 or 50 nuisance calls. I didn't answer them. I stopped looking at my phone. I wasn't going to spend an hour wading through my messages on an extortionate T-Mobile roaming rate just to hear a variety of prank calls from a variety of students. I knew there might be some calls from friends in amongst them but I figured they could wait til I got back home.

Not one of the prank calls was mean or abusive. There was no name calling or anything like that. It was more:
"Hi Dave, it's Gordon here from BBC3, we've got a really exciting project lined up for you, can you give me a call on the following number asap..." at which point they'd give me their mates number in the hope that I'd call that number and hilarity would ensue. That sort of thing.

(It is fascinating to discover that that's how they imagine things work. Yes, TV executives (whose voices haven't broken yet - even for BBC3 this is far fetched) are always calling me up from rowdy pubs at 10 o'clock at night and offering me great opportunities... and I'm so desperate to suckle at television's teat that I'm obviously going to call them immediately to pursue it.)

But while they weren't abusive - it felt more like I was the prop in a gag they were playing on their mate and they'd have been just as likely to do it to WH Smiths, say, as me - en masse it was becoming a huge inconvenience. But it became more than that when I went through my messages back in London. There was one message from a friend. It was important. Not in a work way, but in a personal way. It was something I shouldn't have left for a day. I really should have responded. Someone, somewhere needed to hear from me and as a friend, I should have been there for them. The details aren't important... what's important is that some students having a laugh had managed to make life quite a lot worse than it should have been. It was no longer just an inconvenience...

Oh... and on my first day back in England I received around 150 calls from unknown numbers. It was still escalating.

So I decided to do something about it. So I hid my number and called the semi-literate, Surrey University student. He seemed very surprised to hear from me. He was 19 years of age but sounded like a 12 year old who thought he was in trouble. His voice was shaking. I could almost hear his heart beating. I honestly thought he was going to cry.

I asked him how he'd got my number. He sounded flustered and pretended he couldn't really remember. I told him that he could. So he did and he told me. He'd got it from a friend. Who'd also got it from a friend... who had been in Edinburgh during the festival where he'd found a mislaid mobile phone. Being a decent sort he tried to find out who the phone belonged to by looking through the numbers it contained. Which is where he found my number. Instead of thinking, "oh look, I've heard of him", shrugging his shoulders and carrying on, he'd thought, "oh look, I've heard of him... I'm going to write that down."

But then the phone had rung and he discovered the phone's owner on the other end and he'd made arrangements to give them their phone back.

So, I asked my nearly-blubbing student for his friend's number. He said he didn't know it. I told him I knew he was lying and he nearly started hyperventilating under the pressure. I suspected he was telling the truth. But one of the things I'm good at is finding information. I had a name. And a place to start, so I soon found the next link in the chain.

He also sounded like a scared animal when confronted. I asked him how he'd got the number. He corroborated the story. I asked him for the name of the friend who'd found the number.
"Ummmm"
"Don't pretend you don't know."
"Okay. It was ????? ??????"
"Right. And do you have his number?"
"Ummm"
"You do."
"I don't think I can access it while I'm on the phone."
"Yes you can."
"I don't think I ought to just give someone's phone number out..."
No irony. He meant it.
"I agree. And I think I'd like to tell him that too..."
"Oh... right. Yeah... it's..."

So it took me three phone calls to get through to the man who'd written my number down and started it all. He too seemed shocked and scared to be hearing from me. In fact I'm pretty sure he did start crying during the call.

But these three phone calls identified only a small handful of people who'd gotten hold of my number and the calls were coming in from different numbers every day and there was no point me trying to pursue each and every one of them. Besides, scaring 18 year old boys and making them cry wasn't making me happy.

What had happened is that the first person had found my number, gone back to his home town and given my number to four or five others. They were all about to go off to different universities. So they all did. And in the craven social atmosphere of Freshers Week they'd all done a bit of showing off... which had involved giving my number to new people who'd all done the same... and some of them had done the same and so on. First year students drinking please-like-me pints do that sort of thing.

Making nuisance phone calls is a crime. The calls kept on coming and the police did get involved warning some of the people who were making them. But as the number was being passed on to new people every day that wasn't doing anything to contain it. So, with regret I was forced into changing my number. I'd had that number for as long as I could remember. I knew that number inside out and backwards. I've had my new number for ten months now. I still don't know it. I hate that I was forced into changing my number.

Anyway... that was probably at the back of my mind when I first heard about this new 118 800 service - a directory enquiries for mobile phone numbers. The idea that anyone could dial in, try their luck and get my new number was alarming to me. There have been a number of scare stories in the media about it... like this from the BBC and this from The Register.

I find the whole idea that you can opt out offends my sensibilities. It seems to me that it's the kind of thing you should have to opt in for.

According to that Register story, Connectivity confirmed it had planned legal action to get access to operator data saying, "Exactly as all the landline directory services were entitled to request telephone number data from BT, 118800 is also legally entitled to request data from telecommunications companies."

The thing is... if I remember rightly, when I moved house and got a new landline number I think I was given the option there and then on making it ex-directory. When I was given my new mobile number I wasn't. So the comparison doesn't stack up. BT might be obliged to hand over those details to a ladline directory service... but they do so knowing that their customers have consented to being in a directory. As a mobile directory didn't exist when we were given our numbers nobody stopped to ask.

As I type this the 118800 website is currently not working. Presumably because of all the people using it to try and make their number ex-directory.

In fairness to them, I ought to point out that they don't actually give your number out to anyone. What they told me is that they call you, explain who's asking for you and then offer to patch the call through. Which is still too much intrusion for me.
Getting a call from 118800 saying "Hello... we have someone called Gordon from BBC3 on the line, do you want me to patch it through?" isn't materially different to getting a message from a student saying the same thing after all.

Because the website wasn't functioning properly yesterday I called the number and asked to be made ex-directory. The person I spoke to was very defensive about the whole thing and very keen to tell me why I shouldn't believe things I might have read in an e-mail. Which seemed odd because I didn't know anything about any e-mail.

He went to great lengths to explain that they had bought their numbers from legitimate sources and that if I'd never given my number to any company I had nothing to worry about.

But I have experiences to prove that's nonsense also. I've had compensation from two companies who have sent me spam text messages before now. Both were mainstream companies. Both had bought lists of numbers from reputable sources. On both occasions the reputable sources had got my number illegally. On both occasions I put more man hours into it than is reasonable in order to prove my case and get compensation.

I'm delighted to see the 118800 website is down. I hope it stays that way. If you haven't already, do call them and ask to be ex-directory. Let's keep them so busy removing numbers that they don't have time to actually call anyone and offer to patch them through.

39 comments:

John said...

Having witnessed you laying into tattoo photographers, I can well believe you can make 18 year olds cry over the phone.

Still, fair play.

Will B said...

That's unfortunate Dave, sorry to hear it. When I first heard about 118 800 I immediately checked to see if my number was on there and thankfully it wasn't. I'm glad it's down now.

Do you think, given the choice to be part of it, a mobile phone directory would work at all? For some reason my mobile phone is far more personal and sensitive than the phone in my house but surely some people wouldn't object..

Tim said...

Hey Dave, off topic but your photo reminds me of one of mine :)

http://www.slackerpedia.com/pixelpost/index.php?showimage=109

Dave Gorman said...

@John: as it goes I didn't lay into anyone. I just calmly explained the trouble they'd created, the nature of the important call I'd missed and so on. It was guilt that made them blub not a telling off from me.

gareth said...

Apparantly you cannot call them to be ex-directory any more. however you also cannot complete on-line either.

"Apologies. Our website is currently unavailable as we carry out essential maintenance. However it will be available again tomorrow and you will be able to use any security code you have received to complete your ex-directory request. Please do not call 118000 for ex directory requests as you will be asked to visit our website tomorrow. . Thanks for your patience"

Dougie Lawson said...

Brilliant article, 118 800 should get you to do the voice-overs for their TV ads, you're clearly an ambassador fo their service. :-) :-)

I've posted my mobile number on to the 118800.co.uk website. My view is that if anyone is prepared to pay a pound to get my number then they must be desperate to speak to me.

I'm told you can opt-out by texting E to 118800, but that may just be hearsay, rumour and gossip.

I reckon I could make an 18yr old cry, but I may need to use my Louisville Slugger to get a perfect result.

Anonymous said...

You could always do the little trick to make them take you seriously. Send them a letter stating that answering any contact from their company will be as a service, costing £1000 per call, and that any such call would be deemed as acceptance of those terms and conditions.

That should be enough to make them scramble to make sure they don't contact you. If they do you can then invoice them, and take them to the small claims court if they don't pay. Failure to pay would be a serious matter which would appear on their credit worthiness.

In short, they would either have to pay handsomely, or be in a world of pain that would make them wish they had never dreamed up this particular business model.

Brad Wright said...

There are quite a few problems with 118800, not least of which include:

* The ex-directory link jumps around on the navigation, forcing the user to seek it out;
* The ex-directory URL doesn't accept any page views that aren't from a homepage referral (try hitting the URL without coming from the homepage); and
* Worst of all, when you try to unsubscribe yourself they're clearly fishing for information. Name, address, postcode etc.

They're utterly horrible spamming arseholes and should be treated as such.

Anonymous said...

My 13 year old son suggests we all send them a bag of dog poo. And if you don't have a dog; cat, ferret, rabbit (insert here) would do nicely.

Not a bad idea.

arfurfaxsake said...

11800 say hat no kids numbers will be part of the service, but as children can't have an account under age 18, they will have to open accounts under thier parents name, so any numbers will have the parental name. Therefore children will be getting calls from strangers-even if those calls are from 118800 it is still unacceptable

hatsbybilly said...

Sympathies Dave - My uncle is called Arthur Nutter - you can imagine the phone calls... not as bad as the Mrs Pissimissis who used to be in the Bradford phonebook though...

Cold Tuesday Evenings said...

I don't believe that you made anyone cry (everyone jazzes up stories to make themselves look better) but agree with the points.

Dave Gorman said...

@Cold Tuesday Evenings: Well I don't know for sure. But two of them got emotional at best and the third - the man most to blame - definitely sounded like he was crying. I think it was the realisation that he'd broken the law, behaved like a tit and might get into some actual trouble that set him off.

Cold Tuesday Evenings said...

Ah okay, fair play. He did indeed act like a tit, and I hope we was in tears.

Ian Tindale said...

Imagine this exact model, but applied to email. Nobody would accept it, but nobody would be rushing around panicking about it, emailing each other with misinformation to warn the world about it, etc. However, unlike email, with a phone there's no analogy of a 'spam filter' that doesn't require our intervention. If this 118 800 attempt fails, someone else might try again and succeed (perhaps from a non-uk source, like all the sex phone lines are from to sidestep legalities) and in a few generations the cellular phone will be unusable. I'm starting now - even now I suddenly realise occasionally that I didn't bring my phone with me and just shug my shoulders and get back to where my train of thought was having signalling problems. I reckon the future is to return to making it difficult to be contacted - even twitter, etc will become a spam minefield given long enough. If it's important enough, you'll find a way to contact me.

Kit said...

I could not agree more that

"the whole idea that you can opt" is WRONG and you should have to opt in.

They would not have many takers.
and
those that OPTED IN would be unlikely to get calls from me.

LIKE YOU I hope the number of calls they are bombarded with keeps THEM OFF LINE.

P.S. I believe you can simply text the letter 'E' to 118800 from the mobile phone you want to be made ex-directory.

Though this probably will not keep them as busy!

Dave Gorman said...

@Ian Tindale: I disagree... I think if someone tried to do a directory enquiries for e-mail people would be up in arms and sending panic mails to stop it. A lot of people have more than one address - one that's in the public domain and one that is intended to be spam-free and used only by those in the know. I had to take my public domain e-mail away and replace it with a form because it was receiving over 40,000 spam e-mails a day and no spam-filter could help.

But there is a spam-filter equivalent for 118800. It's called making your number ex-directory. (I just think that should be the default setting, that's all.)

They're not going to give your number out to anyone... they're going to call you and ask if you want the caller to be put through. So any spam that occurred would still have to come through them. If they ever get the website back up then make your number ex-directory and you'll stop all potential spam-calls coming from 118800.

davepop said...

Maybe the solution lies with the mobile phone companies. You could register with them that you'd like to be ex-directory and the calls from 118800 etc, are not routed through to you. There will be other 118... compaines looking at this to see if it works as a business model which would mean you've got to become ex-directory with all of them. That would be a pain.

Dave Gorman said...

@davepop: If memory serves, when I last got a landline number I was asked by BT at the time if I wanted to be ex-directory. I said I did.

So now, when any company asks BT for a list of numbers mine presumably won't be on it.

But when I last got a mobile number no such directory existed and so the question wasn't asked.

Whether it is termed opt-out or opt-in isn't really relevant... it's when it happens that counts. You should be given the option when you get the number. Seeing as nobody was given the option when they got their mobile number, every mobile phone company should now contact every customer and ask them if they'd like to be ex-directory... that way 118800 (and any other company that comes along) will only be able to build a database out of numbers that have been volunteered.

Emma said...

I don't have a problem with 118800 as such (I can't imagine a network of 150 students wanting to contact me), but I can't really see any practical application for the service, other than marketing.

Those that might need to contact me have my number. So the only people that don't already have my number that might want to talk to me are businesses wanting my custom.

Now I think about it, I can't say I've every used a normal phone directory. I've never needed to speak to anyone I don't know that urgently.

Lee said...

0800 1386263 is the number to call to check if they have your number and to become ex-directory.

lbc said...

Good blog Mr O'G.
I texted 'E' to 118800, as suggested by the BBC, then I worried that this would merely confirm my number to them (much like trying to unsuscribe from a mailing list can actually encourage MORE spam emails).
Then I re-read the 188800 website, which stated that they would not be accepting the texts for the time being anyhow.
Presumably they have been forced to close down pending legal action?

Dave Gorman said...

@lbc: I don't think it is to do with legal action although I may be wrong. I think they've attracted a lot of negative publicity with this and that far more people than they were expecting have been calling to have their numbers removed. When I spoke to them they were very much on the defensive and sounded like they'd been dealing with nothing but complaints all day.

I think they have a legal duty to comply with all ex-directory requests within a certain timeframe and they were probably approaching the point where they didn't have the manpower to process everything in time and so had to duck for cover for now.

I'm pretty sure that their business is legal (which doesn't mean I think it should be) but I reckon they've ended up in an unmanageable situation where they simply don't have the staff needed to do everything they have to do and so have had to pull the shutters down for wee while.

I guess if it's really bad they might even be considering pulling out of it completely. But that's probably just wishful thinking.

Simon said...

"Services" like this make me insanely angry - they are absolutely nothing to do with innovation (as the head of 118800 claimed in his BBC interview), but merely a grubby way of making money.
A similar system to this (hitta.se) has existed in Sweden for some time - I always thought that as it is entirely legal and there is a possibility of making a fast buck from it, it was only a matter of time before something of this nature was started in the UK. In my opinion it should only be legal on an opt-in basis.
And I bet the Raj Raithatha's number is ex-directory.

Mad Dog said...

Whichever way you cut it this is a very bad idea. I too have tried to make my number ex-directory but as already noted here the site is down. So I have written to the postal address shown on the site -118 800, PO Box 2747, Reading RG30 4ZQ - telling them I want to be removed from their lists immediatly. I believe that data protection laws mean they can't ignore this so I suggest we all send letters to them - at least until their online unsubscribe is back up (they probably think we will all shut and go away if they leave it long enough). They will have to cope with high volumes of mail and acknowledge each one. It's got to be worth the cost of a stamp:-) While you are about it, why not lodge a complaint online with the Information Commissioners Office (www.ico.org.uk)- these people are meant to protect our privacy under the Data Protection Act but appear to have given a green light to this project so let's pressure them too and perhaps they will change their mind. Posted by Mad Dog

Matt Whitby said...

I phoned them to ask to be made ex-directory as soon as I read about the service last month. Privacy shouldn't need to be opt-out, it should be automatic.

Matt Whitby said...

Interesting point. When the site comes up I think i'll see if Raj Raithath's number IS on there. It would seem to be bad publicity if it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Dave, as much as I think you are brilliant I'd never ring you even if I did have your number.

What you've highlighted is an issue that the Information Commissioner should have ruled on a long time ago. You should only ever have to opt-in, whether online or not. That would apply to any personal data, not just mobile numbers.

AnotherDave said...

I think the mobile companies are being given bad press here for selling numbers but do we know where the numbers are coming from? How many times have we all filled in our mobile number when buying something on the internet and then forgotten to click the DO NOT pass on to selected third parties box on the purchase form.

I think we should have to OPT IN to being contacted / having our details passed on, on all web sites by default.

Anonymous said...

dave, good point about the phone technology pre-dating the idea of a directory. I wonder if the same was true of telephones connected by peices of wire.

On the point of data protection, since no phone number is actually given to the searcher, 118800 is not really a directory, it is an intermediary. This is perhaps the basis for its claim to have satisfied the principles of the data protection act. Crucially, however, this not-being-a-directory severely limits the functionality of the service. It will throw up lots of false matches, with the searcher wasting their £1 search fee.

Many of the numbers on the marketing lists that 118800 has bought will be out of date because people have moved to another area or upgraded their phone and got a new SIM as part of the package or changed to another mobile network, etc.
As I'm not famous, this gives me some solace.

I don't know if their opt out mechanism could be used either now or in future for harvesting mob no.s
There's a strong chance they don't have my number anyway.
If they do and I decide to ignore calls from 118800, will they know that my cell phone number is active?

I'm not going to provide them with any data of mine until I have had a chance to anonymously use their directory to check if I'm in there in the first place.

Alex.

Anonymous said...

Connectivity's response to questions about 118800 in the following document indicates its attitude to, and understanding of, consent. You will be interested in their response to Q4.9

http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/dirinfo/responses/connectivity.pdf

Meanwhile, appeals to the Information Commissioners Office may hold more weight if the concern is from those with an objection to the principle ratherthan a complaint about the treatment of their own personal data.

http://tweetmeme.com/bar/110974930

kathryn gaunt said...

i quite agree with everythng you said, until now i had no idea about this 118 800 thing, i find the whole idea dispicable, i go to great lengths not to give people my number, i work in a pub after all and you tend to get alot of people asking for your number, but if i refuse them, they can still go nd call this blasted number and still find my number



now for some reason over the last 2 months i have had 6 unknown numbers call my phone, when and where these people got my number from i dont know, but after i answered one and told him to get a life, and if i didnt stop getting these calls then i would be giving all the numbers to the police and they would deal with it, thankfully, touch wood, i've had no more calls



but to find that these people are just giving out our numbers to all and sundry, i find absolutely ridiculous and a complete invasion of privacy, i think the thing that is annoying me the most, is that, yes, thier website is still down, but you cant rind/text/email them to as to be made ex-directory, so how am i going to do it!?!



as for those students you said about, that is ridiculous, if it was me, i would have thrown it away, and told my friends to grow up, as it is, students will be students, and in future you'll have to be very careful who you give your phone number to, make sure they care about you too, even when they lose their phones

Neil 118800 said...

Hi Dave, Neil from 118800 here.

Just to clear up a number of issues.

We don’t give out mobile numbers. 118800 is a service for connecting people that know each other’s name and address.

In the majority of cases it will be a friend or colleague who has lost your number, doesn’t have it on them or has lost their mobile phone and needs to get in touch.

If you are contacted it will be by 118800 calling to announce the name of that person, or sending a text message with the name and number of the person trying to get in touch. It will then be up to you whether you want to speak to them or not.

The website is currently unavailable while we improve the service we offer our customers. All ex-directory requests made prior to the 10th of July are being processed and we will be taking ex-directory requests again once the website is back up and running, which will be as soon as possible.

You will be able to do this free of charge from the website or by calling us on a low charge number from the phone you wish to make ex-directory.

We recommend you check whether you are in the directory first before taking the time to become ex-directory.

118800 connect people that know each other, we don’t give out numbers to anyone.

For more information please visit our website on http://www.118800.co.uk/

PaulR said...

Hi Dave

The reply from Neil at 118800 made me laugh.

I'm a mod at a site where we have also been commenting on this service. Suddenly, up pops this new member with a reply.

Would you believe it that some of the phrases used in his reply there are EXACTLY the same as they are here. Ideed the first paragraph is exactly the same!

Sounds like they have a bank of phrases that they can plug into to respond. In fact, knowing call centres, whoever is tasked with replying probably isn't allowed to deviate from the script at all.

They probably do a Google search every so often to see who's been talking about them.

I reckon Neil doesn't exist either - he's a made up person to put a human face to a corporate slab.

Busted!!

Paul

PaulR said...

Just done my own Google search. I put in "Neil from 118800" (including the quotes) and got 17 hits, so it looks like I was right about them Doing their own Google search every so often.

That 17 hits doesn't even include the one on the forum I mentioned above as it's been removed, so that makes 18!

Pauk

Anonymous said...

Originally connectivity said that they were going to contact all the users before listing them, but I guess they thought they could get away with it and didn’t. Bit of a mistake IMO…

This site will not disappear overnight; 21 million of 3i money is invested in this project so they are not just going to write that off. The only way I can see this being saved is if they look into a model that already works - opt in. Opt in is the only way forward. Also the brand is in tatters, nobody trusts them and they need to re brand.

Jimpress Jimi Hendrix magazine said...

Great blog encapsulating what so many have been saying and worrying about. I've been trying to go ex-directory since I heard about it but it seems permanently broken. Let's hope it stays that way. And if it doesn't then let's bombard them with remove requests, banal enquiries, and celebrity phone numbers. Er, well perhaps not the last one.

Dave Gorman said...

@Neil 118800 I know you don't give out people's numbers. I know that you call people and ask them if they want to be connected. I don't understand why you think a call from you isn't intrusive in and of itself. You know when kids play knock and run? I never understood the appeal myself but presumably there was pleasure to be derived in having someone open their door to find nobody was there. Well your service will allow the same thing to happen by phone. You call. Interrupt what I'm doing. Ask me if I want to take a call from someone. I say no. My day is still interrupted.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave

I too felt annoyed to say the least about this cheeky phone 'service', and under the circumstances thought it only fair to search for Shona Forster from Connectivity (the Marketing Director from the company behind 118 800) on Google in order to find a telephone number and let her know how I felt. After all, someone who took the liberty of procuring several million phone numbers for use by the general public would surely be only too happy to be contacted?!
I felt disappointed that she settled in to reeling off well practiced news interview arguments, the main points being that technically it's not a breach of privacy because personal numbers are not handed over to callers, that this sort of thing is commonplace in Scandinavian countries, that an opt-in service would be too difficult to implement, and that people could choose to opt out if they wished.

So basically, if Mr A decided he wanted to call Mrs B and 118 800 told him which numbers to press on his keypad in order to make it happen, it would be highly illegal and the Information Commissioner's Office would shut the company down. But if 118 800 pressed the numbers and then placed the call for him instead everything would be gravy. How could anyone possibly object to that?

Also, I presume by dropping in the bit about the mobile phone directories of Scandinavian countries she was inferring that the Brits should stop being silly and stubbornly standing in the way of progress, and go with the flow just like the trend-setting visionaries in Norway Sweden and Denmark?

Best wishes,


Jimbob