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Cold calls and telephone research – scam or no scam?

June 12, 2012


I  was prompted to write this blog post by a conversation with my mother-in-law (hi!) who was telling me that she was keen to take part in research but she didn’t know how to judge whether people that phoned her were legitimate researchers or some kind of scammers.

She makes an excellent point.  Sometimes people ring you out of the blue and say they are doing research, but by the end of the call you realise that wasn’t quite the case and they want to sell you something.  This is called sugging (selling under the guise of research), and I wrote about it here.    It annoys me, I absolutely consider it a scam.  By this I don’t mean it is illegal – it isn’t.  But I do mean that I consider it to be dodgy and dishonest (and my professional body says it is deceitful and odious – referenced in the linked blog).  Grr.

But hurrah, if you are kind enough to want to give up your time to have your say in an actual genuine research project (and we researchers love you for that) there are ways weigh up who is legitimate and who is trying to scam you.

First of all though, a quick diversion into how telephone research works.  Organisations that need to evaluate their products or gauge opinions on something commission a research company to undertake research.  A researcher will prepare a questionnaire and it will be sent along to a telephone centre where it will be programmed into their computer system along with a sample of phone numbers.  Call centre staff will ring round the sample of phone numbers until they have completed enough questionnaires – usually hundreds or thousands in total.  When they call people about the research the conversation will be all about the questionnaire, and will absolutely not involve anyone trying to sell anything.  Give these guys a break, it’s a hard job as I explain here.

Another piece of context, if you are signed up to the telephone preference service it would be natural to believe that any cold calls that you receive must be scams.  However, the telephone preference service protects you against cold call selling, and because legitimate research does not sell you anything there is no requirement for legitimate research agencies to screen their contact lists against the telephone preference service (although some research agencies do).  It is also worth noting that a legitimate research company may have been given your number by their client – for example if your bank wants feedback from its customers they can provide a research company with customer contact details.  This is acceptable under the data protection act as long as it is for legitimate research purposes only.  

So herein lies the problem, the cold calls that you receive that claim to be research are either going to be the most genuine and legitimate kind of research, or the nastiest scammiest kind of scams.  And when someone cold calls you it is hard to know which of these the conversation is going to turn into.  So how can you tell?

OK.  So let us assume you’ve answered the phone and you are speaking to a call centre employee.

First things first, did you get a letter in advance?  Some organisations will write to you in advance and let you know that research is being conducted and that you might receive a call.  This doesn’t happen all that often, but if you do receive a letter followed by a phone call it is probably safe to assume that the research is legitimate.

Next, the first two minutes of the call is absolutely key, this is the bit you need to listen to and the best time to judge whether you should take part or not.  The reason for this is that a legitimate research organisation is bound by the Market Research Society code of conduct to undertake research ethically (see my blog post for more details), and this code of conduct specifies a list of things that they have to tell research respondents up front.  Consequently in a call about a legitimate survey, the caller will volunteer the following information in their introductory spiel, because their professional body requires them to:

  • The name of their company
  • The subject of the research
  • The client who commissioned the research (usually, unless they have a good reason not to)
  • How long the interview will take
  • That the survey is anonymous
  • That the survey will be conducted according to the Market Research Society code of conduct

Suggers who comply with the data protection act are the tricksiest of the lot in this respect.  Their intros sound so professional and you get sucked in to ‘helping them with their research’ but their end goal is to sell on your phone number.  I’ve had a few calls myself where the caller has said that they are conducting research but has asked up front for permission for my responses and contact details to be passed on to third parties.  This is not genuine research, this is a direct marketing company building a database of targeted contact details to sell.  Listen out for the word anonymous (good) or third parties (bad).

Don’t be shy to ask the caller to repeat the intro.  Legitimate researchers won’t mind, it will be all in the script that they are reading out and they will be keen to encourage you to take part. 

If they don’t tell you (most of) the stuff in the above list, cue warning bells.  Maybe you’re still not sure.  A legitimate research company will have no problem with you asking for more information.  You could ask them for their company details or website address and you could look them up on the internet before you agree to take part.  You could ask how they got your phone number.  You could ask to speak to their supervisor to get a bit more information about what the survey is about.  Some research companies will be able to provide you with a factsheet about the project by fax or email, perhaps even one written by the end client.  If you ask for any of this and they are not happy to accommodate you, the research is unlikely to be legitimate.  Check out the IpsosMORI website to see a typical example of how helpful agencies are about this.

Additionally, remember how I mentioned the computer system at the telephone centre?  Well this is quite a sophisticated piece of kit.  It is all set up so that if you say you don’t want to take part your number will be marked ‘Refused’ and they will not call you about the survey again.  So if you give them a firm no and you get another call about the same thing you should be suspicious.  The computer system is also set up so that appointments can be made.  If you are busy or if you need time to think about whether you can participate, ask to make an appointment.  A legitimate research organisation will be able to make an appointment for a time to suit you, and call you back when you want them to.  If they can’t or won’t do this they may not be legitimate.

So when you next get a research cold call, look out for the following points and if you spot them then consider giving the research a go:

  • Detailed introduction
  • Reputable research company
  • Mention of the Market Research Society
  • Mention of anonymity
  • Accommodating of requests for more information
9 Comments leave one →
  1. Siobhan Hill permalink
    February 23, 2013 12:38 pm


    I’ve had two ‘market research’ callers recently whose first question is to ask me what age group I am part of and, when I tell them, they say ‘Oh, we already have enough people from that age group, we don’t need to talk to you now’. What are they up to? The second one, after she had told me that she didn’t need to speak to retired people, asked when it would be convenient to ring me back!

  2. February 26, 2013 3:59 pm

    Thanks – I look forward to that!

  3. March 12, 2013 2:03 pm

    That’s it up now:

  4. Alex permalink
    October 17, 2013 9:28 am

    Thanks for this. I am a market research interviewer who had relied on market research in previous job role as a mid level manager in a large global operation. I am 57 and was made redundant. Shame about the pay levels though. It’s an important role despite some people looking down their noses st it. I am getting qualified via the MRS.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    February 22, 2015 3:20 pm

    This is what I understand about telephone surveys:
    1. It is legal to contact people on the “Do Not Call” list.
    2. Because it is legal, the surveying company doesn’t have to comply with Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) or maybe just parts of it, not sure, I’m not a lawyer.
    3. Part of the TCPA requires all telemarketers to maintain a formal written do-not-call policy. A copy of that policy must be provided to all consumers who request it. Failure to provide a copy can result in a fine of $500 per violation.

    So my guess would be that if someone represents themselves as conducting a survey, and then tries to sell you something, they are either “A”, ignorant if they think they are protected by the law, or “B”, assume the consumers they are calling are clueless about the law and don’t realize that the caller is breaking the law by misrepresenting himself.

    For more info, go to:

  6. Anonymous permalink
    January 12, 2017 2:28 pm

    Thank you for this! As a new Research Interviewer I have to say that I like my job and speaking to people who know about research and willing to participate makes my job easier. There are also people who will not give me a chance to explain the type of research we are conducting but I am learning more and more every day on how to become a better interviewer. Enverything you have provided on here is true. Thanks!


  1. What’s putting you off participating in research? | ruthlessresearch
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