Publication of Report: Nuisance Calls

20 January 2014

In a report published today, Thursday 5 December 2013, the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee says Ofcom and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), should use their powers more broadly and frequently to punish telemarketers who misuse phone networks and personal contact information. The Committee does not think a single regulator to tackle nuisance calls is necessary, but instead a more achievable and effective outcome would be a single point of contact for customers coupled with more behind-the-scenes co-operation between the existing regulators, mainly Ofcom and the ICO.

A significant cause of nuisance calls is the unfair or even illegal use of personal data, including obtaining a customer's "consent" to receive unsolicited marketing calls in ways that are "at best opaque and at worst dishonest", or trading personal data with companies lacking in scruples.  These practices are already covered by the Data Protection Act: the Committee says the Information Commissioner should use his existing powers to tackle them far more, and should not shy from imposing repeated penalties on companies that are repeat offenders.

Some nuisance callers withhold their numbers or hide behind a false one: the Committee says this should not be allowed for telemarketers or lead generators. Simple technologies such as caller display can help people manage nuisance calls and the Committee says it deeply regrets BT's recent decision to start charging for this service. Other technologies such as the truecall call blocker or TalkTalk's network filtering service - among others - can step in where regulation fails.

Nuisance text messages can be simply reported by forwarding them to a dedicated “short code” number (7726).  The introduction of a similar service for nuisance calls to landlines is "long overdue" and would provide useful intelligence to regulators. The Committee recommends a single online form and single help line - advertised prominently on phone bills - where people could easily report nuisance callers.

John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"Nuisance calls, particularly unwanted marketing calls and text messages, are a source of irritation and distress to millions.  At best, the underlying scatter-gun marketing approach causes needless interruption to many while providing occasional benefit to a few.  At worst, these are unscrupulous and potentially fraudulent practices that can cause great annoyance, anxiety and loss. The challenge is one of curtailing that while at the same time allowing legitimate marketing and unsolicited calls made for good reason.

We can see some scope for introducing tighter regulations; such as prohibiting nuisance callers from hiding behind a blocked or false number. The threshold for the ICO to take enforcement action under EU regulations should also be lowered.  However, above all, those companies engaged in marketing must put their own houses in order, in cooperation with bodies like the direct marketing association. The regulators - Ofcom and the ICO - need to enforce this by using their existing powers far more, while telecommunication companies like BT should ensure that existing simple technologies that can help people deal with nuisance calls themselves - like caller display - remain free to use."

Image: iStockphoto 

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