Jeff Salway: The unwanted calls that drives us wild

FINES on the rise as regulators clamp down says Jeff Salway
More than three billion sales calls a year drive British consumers up the wall, with watchdogs stepping up action against rogue traders. Picture: ContributedMore than three billion sales calls a year drive British consumers up the wall, with watchdogs stepping up action against rogue traders. Picture: Contributed
More than three billion sales calls a year drive British consumers up the wall, with watchdogs stepping up action against rogue traders. Picture: Contributed

Households continue to be bombarded with nuisance calls despite a crackdown that has resulted in a Scottish firm being fined for making more than 2.5 million unsolicited phone calls.

Glasgow-based Nevis Home Improvements was this week hit with a £50,000 penalty by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) following an investigation into recorded calls made last summer promoting the firm’s energy saving services.

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The penalty came just months after another Glasgow firm, Home Energy & Lifestyle Management Ltd, was fined a then-record £200,000 by the ICO after making more than six million automated calls about free solar panels.

That was eclipsed in February when a Brighton company selling people’s details to PPI claims firms was fined £350,000 by the ICO.

The fines were issued in the wake of a law change last April making it easier for the ICO to penalise companies breaching the rules.

“More and more of our investigations involve companies that make unwanted recorded marketing calls,” said Ken Macdonald, assistant information commissioner for Scotland. “Six of our last eight fines have been for calls playing a recorded message. It’s time they got our message – if you don’t follow the rules, we will track you down and take action.”

The ICO now wants the government to enact a further law change to allow directors to be held responsible for rule breaking, a move that would be supported by 90 per cent of Scots, according to recent Which? Research.

The consumer group has urged Holyrood to publish an action plan to tackle nuisance calls, including more help for vulnerable consumers and wider powers to crack down on businesses found to be in breach of the rules.

The worst culprits include energy firms, investment “boiler rooms”, accident claims chasers, solar panel firms and the claims handlers desperately squeezing the last out of the PPI scandal.

More recently there has even been an increase in complaints about nuisance calls from companies offering to protect households from those very calls.

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The rise in complaints partly reflects growing awareness of the efforts being made to stamp out the practice, according to Richard Parkinson, founding director of Farr-Point, an Edinburgh-based IT consultancy.

“The number of complaints the ICO has received about nuisance calls has increased steadily over the last few years, but the number and level of fines has grown much faster. This suggests there is a greater public awareness about legislation relating to nuisance calls and how to report infringements, as well as the ICO’s greater ability to respond to these complaints and hand out fines.”

Those targeted include people who have signed up to the telephone preference service (TPS), through which they can request not to receive unsolicited sales or marketing calls. This makes it illegal for firms to cold call them without permission, but compliance is proving patchy.

“Registering your landline and mobile numbers with the TPS is the best way to avoid nuisance calls. However, even this is not guaranteed to stop all calls, as enforcing the rules for operators based overseas, is difficult,” said Parkinson.

Other efforts to clampdown on nuisance calls have so far enjoyed little success. UK consumers receive around 1.7 billion live sales calls, 1.5 billion silent calls, 940 million automated sales messages and 200 million abandoned calls each year, according to a recent Ofcom review of its “persistent misuse” powers.

New measures aimed at tackling the issue come into force next month. Direct marketing companies will from 16 May have to display their phone numbers when making unsolicited calls. The idea is to help people to identify incoming nuisance calls and to make complaints about them, but it isn’t a “magic solution”, said Parkinson.

“Technology is available that allows call centres to regularly change the number they display and to allow calls to appear as if they are coming from another location,” he said. “Overseas call centres can even make their calls appear to be coming from the UK Rogue call centre operators could use this technology, making it impossible for the person being called to identify marketing calls, and more difficult for enforcement action to be taken.”

There are other steps you can take to fight back against nuisance and other unsolicited calls and texts, however – see the “How To” below.