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Industry Research : Cold Callers Push the Wrong Buttons
It's one of the great banes of modern life. The telephone rings, often at the most inconvenient juncture. You rush to answer the call, believing it could be something of great importance – maybe news of a sick relative, for example – only to be greeted by the sound of silence. Or a recorded message, delivered in an achingly patronising tone, announcing that you could have been mis-sold a PPI scheme, or that you are almost certainly entitled to compensation following an accident. Sound familiar? Well what you probably didn’t realise is that many of these calls are totally illegal.
The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 prohibits the transmission of recorded messages or unsolicited text messages to anybody who has not given their consent to receive them. The maximum fine is £2 million.
The same law also prohibits telephone salesmen from contacting anybody who is registered with the Telephone Preference Service, an opt-out register which anyone can join free of charge. Yet still the calls keep coming through.
A study by the consumer charity Which? found that the TPS succeeded in blocking just a third of all marketing calls. Furthermore, it revealed that during the first three months of this year, 70 per cent of people surveyed had received an unsolicited telephone call of some kind, and four in 10 had received an unwanted text message. Part of the reason for this is that the financial incentives for breaking the rules far outweigh the risk of being caught.
Last year Stockport-based Tetrus Telecoms was fined for sending out spam text messages relating to personal injury and PPI claims.
An 18-month investigation found that the company had been sending a staggering 840,000 text messages out every day, netting an income every day. Joint owner Christopher Niebel disputed the figures, and slammed the Information Commisioner’s investigation as a publicity stunt.
But there are also a number of loopholes which ever-resourceful telephone marketing organisations are quick to exploit.
One is the issue of consent. How many of us have filled out forms over the internet, unaware that we have consented to being contacted by the organisation we are dealing with, as well as ‘carefully selected partner organisations’?
The other problem is that the Privacy and Communications Regulations only apply to businesses based within the European Union. Many of the nuisance calls and messages come from overseas companies outside European jurisdiction.
One of the big phenomenons of the last couple of years has been the number of silent and abandoned telephone calls – your phone rings, but there is no-one there. These almost invariably stem from the use of automated calling systems, which generate more calls than their agents can handle.
Ofcom guidelines say if you answer a call and no agent is available, the call centre operator must play an information message – with no marketing content – stating who the call came from, and providing contact details to prevent similar calls in future. But how often does that happen?
More often than not, it is the sound of silence which most people will hear.
"These calls are highly likely to cause consumers annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety and can be very frightening, particularly for vulnerable people who live alone and may receive repeat silent calls in a short space of time," says a spokesman for the communications regulator Ofcom.
The regulators have enjoyed some recent success in cracking down on the menace of silent and unsolicited telephone calls. This month, phone operator TalkTalk was fined by the regulator Ofcom for making 9,000 silent and abandoned phone calls. And in March Glasgow-based DM Design became the first company to be fined for making sales calls to people registered with the TPS. The company, which supplies kitchens and bathrooms, attracted nearly 2,000 complaints about its telesales calls.
In one instance an employee refused to remove a complainant’s details from the company’s database, and instead threatened to "continue to call at more inconvenient times like Sunday lunchtime".
But John Mitchison, the man in charge of the TPS, admits it is a struggle keeping nuisance callers at bay.
"The TPS has eradicated lots of unwelcome calls, and there is legislation to back us up," he says. "But the rules are complex, have loopholes, are split between agencies, tend to lag technology advances, and have been low priority."
Tracing the companies concerned can also be difficult. Many use witheld numbers or, as in the case of Tetrus Telecommunications, mobile phone numbers with unregistered SIM cards.
The situation is not helped by the complicated divisions of responsibility between different organisations which uphold the law.
The TPS is run by the Direct Marketing Agency, the telephone marketeers’ trade body, on behalf of communications regulator Ofcom.
But enforcement of the rules is split between Ofcom, which handles silent and abandoned calls, and the Information Commissioner’s Office,, which polices cold calls, recorded messages and ‘spam’ texts. Last year the Direct Marketing Agency’s head Mike Lordan claimed his organisation had been passing between 1,000 and 2,000 complaints to the ICO every month. But until last month’s action against DM Design, no company had been fined for flouting the TPS register.
Richard Lloyd of Which? has welcomed the TalkTalk fine, but says there is much more that needs to be done. He says:?"It’s good to see Ofcom flexing its muscles against abandoned and silent calls," he says.
"With so many people telling us they are being bombarded by nuisance calls and texts, we have been calling for all the relevant regulators to work together to properly police and punish those responsible with substantial fines and suspension of licences."
Ofcom’s director of consumer protection Lynn Parker says the body takes issues of silent and abandoned calls extremely seriously.
"We are also playing an active role in the coordinated effort to tackle the wider issue of nuisance calls alongside other regulatory bodies, such as the Information Commissioner’s Office, and Government. This is a complex and challenging area, but Ofcom is determined to work with industry and other regulators to help protect consumers."
One good piece of news is that as of this month, it is now illegal for insurance companies to sell the details of any personal injuries to claims companies, but whether that will stop the calls from coming in, only time will tell.
Experience suggests that some people can be very inventive when it comes to circumventing the rules.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013