News : Crackdown Begins on Nuisance Texts and Phone Calls
London, UK, April 6 2015 -- The spam text message will be familiar to most people. "Our records indicate you had a non-fault accident in the last three years and are in line for receiving compensation. Reply YES for more info. Reply NO to opt out."
Millions of such unsolicited messages, many of them illegal, are sent every day; just as many calls are made about payment protection insurance (PPI) compensation and solar panelling. Trying to stem the tide of nuisance texts and phone calls may seem impossible, but the government is trying.
From Monday, it will be easier for a government watchdog to crack down on companies that plague householders with unsolicited or nuisance phone calls and texts, with fines of up to £500,000.
Until now, the law required the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to prove a company caused "substantial damage or substantial distress" through their conduct before action can be taken. That legal threshold has now been removed.
Following a six-week public consultation, the government is now removing this legal threshold, giving the ICO the power to intervene in more cases. The government also confirmed it would look at introducing measures to hold board-level executives responsible for nuisance calls and texts.
In other words, the ICO will no longer have to prove that messages are causing a "substantial damage or substantial distress" before taking action.
Last year there were more than 175,000 complaints made to the ICO about nuisance calls and texts, but prosecutions are few. The consumer group Which?, which lobbied for the lowering of the legal threshold, says four in five people are regularly cold-called at home, while a third of householders feel intimidated by the messages.
An all-parliamentary group report in 2013 said the number of unwanted calls in the UK was almost certainly more than 1bn a year. The calls have one goal: to generate business. Boilers and solar panels are two of the most complained about topics, while PPI claims is another bugbear.
The change in the law followed a legal setback suffered by the ICO in 2013, when it lost its appeal against a decision to overturn combined fines against the owners of Tetrus Telecoms for sending millions of unsolicited texts. The upper tribunal upheld a ruling that the ICO had not shown that the messages met the legal threshold for serving fines, even though the company sometimes sent as many as 840,000 spam texts a day about PPI and accident claims.
"One of the motivations was the Tetrus case," said James Stanley, a press officer at ICO. "Such a high threshold was impairing our ability to undertake action."
No one claims that the new rules will solve the problem, but direct marketers and campaigners see it as a step in the right direction.
"It is a bit of a deterrent as previous powers were too weak," said Mike Lordan, director of external affairs at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). "It is not going to affect out-and-out scammers, but it may well affect people who were not afraid of breaking the rules a bit. Still, more and more prosecutions will help."
The scale of the problem was illustrated in March, when the ICO raided a call centre in Hove, East Sussex, thought to be responsible for making millions of nuisance calls. The ICO said the business used automatic dialling technology to make 4m-6m recorded telephone calls a day about debt management or PPI. The calls were made anonymously, without consent, and it was impossible to opt out of receiving them.
The DMA now fears the new pension rules, allowing people aged 55 and over to get access to their savings, will encourage scam artists. It says the change could pose a threat to the reputation of the industry as rogue operators flout the law and try to cash in on this new market.
The DMA operates the telephone transference service (TPS), the public’s main defence against nuisance calls. Telemarketers are barred under the privacy and electronic (EC directive) regulations from contacting anybody who is registered with the TPS, meaning they have opted out of telemarketing calls. But it’s a porous barrier.
For many, nuisance calls are just that. But often the problem is more serious. The ICO issued a £70,000 fine to EMC Advisory Services Limited, a Devon marketing firm, in October.
One complainant told the commissioner: "I am in the middle of caring for my father (91) who has both cancer and Alzheimer’s. Every call is a potentially important call for me to need to act on/or receive bad news. It is very distressing that these organisations are able to flout the law like this and invade not just my, but also my father’s, privacy."
In a case that led to a fine against a personal injuries claims management company Direct Assist Ltd last week, one household reported being called 470 times by the company. The firm has gone into liquidation.
Typically, nuisance calls are a two-step process. A call centre – often based abroad – will call an individual on the pretext of a survey. By agreeing to answer questions, it is taken that the person has "opted in" to receive calls from firms trying to sell anything from financial products to solar panels. The call centre has in effect generated a lead, a phone number for a company trying to sell its products.
Intimately linked to nuisance calls is the improper dissemination of data. The ICO announced an investigation last week into allegations about firms sharing sensitive personal data, including pension details, following reports in the Daily Mail.
Campaigners have welcomed the commissioner’s more aggressive approach to nuisance calls and the changes in the law, but question whether this is enough.
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"ICO powers are limited, but over the last two years, new people on the enforcement side have shown a lot more energy to sort this out. It’s a positive step, but I don’t think they will get across the plot totally," said David Hickson, of the Fair Telecoms Campaign.
"The simple answer is that our proposals are for specific regulators to make it impossible to use leads garnered by telephone – regardless of who makes the call or where it is made from."
Brought to book
Tetrus Telecoms In 2012 Christopher Niebel and Gary McNeish were issued a combined fine for sending millions of spam texts on behalf of claims management companies looking for compensation cases. Niebel managed to overturn his portion of the fine, arguing that his company had not caused sufficient distress to those contacted. McNeish later apologised for his actions.
Direct Assist The Bolton firm, which offers access to solicitors for claims, went into liquidation after being fined for nuisance calls. More than 800 complaints were registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office about the company.
Reactiv Media The direct marketing company, based in Elland, West Yorkshire, is appealing against a fine issued for unwanted calls. Last year, it was expelled from the Direct Marketing Association after complaints about the company’s PPI nuisance calls.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Office responsible for the enforcement of the Data Protection Act 1998, and also responsible for Freedom of Information.
Published: Tuesday, April 7, 2015
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