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Update: Calling time on withheld numbers

Withheld number

The Government has announced a crackdown on withheld numbers, making it a legal requirement for companies to provide a valid number when they call you. How many calls from withheld numbers do you get?

‘Withheld Number’. ‘No Caller Id’. ‘Unknown Number’.

How often do you see and hear these words on your home phone, mobile or when you dial 1471? (If you’re going out with Adele you probably have at least a thousand of these…)

Frustrating isn’t it?

Without knowing who’s calling you it makes it difficult to report the call as unwanted to the regulators, or to us.

Win for our campaign

Which is why the announcement from the Government today is such a significant step forward for our Calling Time on Nuisance campaign. The Government has announced that it will be a legal requirement for marketing callers to provide a valid phone number that can be displayed when they call you.

We’ve been calling for mandatory Caller Line Identification (CLI) since we launched our campaign, and it formed one of the recommendations in the Nuisance Calls Action Plan, so it’s a victory for all our supporters that the Government is taking action on this issue.

Marketing companies that don’t display their number will face heavy fines from the regulator – over £1.14 million in fines were imposed on firms last year for nuisance calls and texts.

Why is CLI important?

Caller ID is pretty important because, without it, it’s hard to know who’s calling you and that then makes it harder to report nuisance calls to the regulators. I think I get at least three of these a week with corresponding voicemail’s telling me I can make a claim for my ‘recent road accident’. (The fact that I haven’t driven for five years makes this all the more baffling).

We know that mandatory CLI won’t put an end to nuisance calls, but it will certainly help. It will help you spot nuisance calls (you can see the rundown of our top ten most reported numbers here) and therefore, make it easier for you to report them and action to be taken.

We believe that responsible businesses should have nothing to fear from telling people who is calling. In fact, three in ten people say they’d be more likely to think of a company positively if the company committed to showing their number when calling.

The six-week consultation closes on 23 February 2016, after which the Government plans to bring the measure into force in spring this year. We’ll continue to update you on the progress of mandatory CLI and will keep pushing the Government, businesses and regulators to cut nuisance calls off at the source and make senior executives personally accountable if their company makes unwanted calls.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on mandatory CLI – how many calls from withheld numbers do you get?

Update 24 April 2016 – Date set for new rules

The Government has now set a date for when direct marketing companies will be forced to display their phone numbers when making unsolicited calls – 16 May.

Baroness Neville Rolfe, minister responsible for data protection, said:

‘The Government is committed to tackling this problem, which is why we are making it easier for consumers to report companies by forcing them to display their phone numbers.

‘We’re sending a clear message to rogue direct marketing companies. Nuisance calls are unacceptable and we will not hesitate to take action against the companies behind them.’

This change to legislation will not only make it easier for you to refuse to answer a call from a number you don’t recognise, reporting unwanted calls will be simpler too. This should lead to the regulators fining more nuisance calling companies.


bishbut says:
24 January 2016

Surely companies are helping themselves by using withheld numbers how can you call back if you don’t have their number to call. I never answer withheld numbers at all unavailable ones many numbers I do not recognize all people who might need to contact me come up as names on my phone. Caller display should be provided free by all phone companies

Indeed, bishbut! Bona fide companies will welcome your call back. And if they’ve commissioned an agent to call you, that agent will normally have phone system software which shows you the originating company’s general number as source (the same software that’s now used so widely for scamming!) However, most companies are not yet up-to-date with this technology, and if the farmed-out calling is by homeworkers, it is they who will not use redirection software (they can’t afford it!) and would prefer not to have calls to their home number from their employer’s customers. That’s an issue that will have to be sorted out, somehow – maybe the homeworker can call via the company’s switchboard with the calls rerouted to the customer – if they have a modern system.

Otherwise, blocked number of origin will be either from an illegal caller, or your nervous relatives and friends. In the latter case, the only answer is to allow your answering service to pick up the call, listen in, and answer if you recognize the caller. I’ve done this for years, and it’s very effective: human cold callers hang up; autodiallers cut off, and machine messages can simply be ignored and deleted later.

Chris says:
6 February 2016

I quite agree. It worries me that this is only directed at companies as really nasty calls would slip in. Is it not possible for all calls to need their number displayed?

Ian says:
29 April 2016

What are the chances that a caller who is already breaking the law when they make that call will comply with a request to reveal their number so as to make it easier to apprehend them?

beryl hatton says:
2 November 2016

Trouble is that many companies which you may use or need do actually have withheld numbers. Many holiday companies and hotels are culprits too, which is quite baffling because they may have messages for you and these will not be received. I am still getting nuisance calls from withheld numbers so the deadline for making this illegal does not seem to be working!!!

It is probably a quirk of legal history that it is even possible to withhold your number when ringing someone’s telephone bell. After all, if the police were patrolling a street and saw people wearing masks ringing on people’s door bells they would probably at least stop them or even arrest them for threatening behaviour or something like that.

Yes, John. Originally, it was to protect the innocent, when caller displays first came in! How times have changed.

The trueCall call blocker requires that callers unidentified (either because the number has been withheld or because they are unknown as yet to the system) record their names before a call is either accepted or rejected. All cold-callers so far have rung off at this stage and we have not been disturbed by them in over two years, in contrast to previous years when we had several such calls each week. It seems that such callers are wary of being recorded in case they can be identified by the recording. Purchasing the unit I regard as a simple and not overly expensive form of insurance against unwarranted disturbance, comparable with other forms of insurance which we take out for peace of mind.

Absolutely, Trolka. My Call Guardian equivalent is integrated into our BT8500 phones, and these systems are a real boon. Some people have commented here that no-one should have to pay in order to stop these nuisance calls; but even when the law forbids commercial calls from having blocked numbers, the scammers won’t be stopped because they’ll ignore the law. As one previous respondent has said, it’s like asking a burglar to leave his identity for the police! Some sort of paid system for calls is the equivalent of locks and a burglar alarm. In its simplest form, a cheap answering machine or the 1571 system can take your calls, and you can vet them later.

With this system a password number can be given to favoured callers who always conceal their numbers (vulnerable folks and doctors, for example) so they can short-cut the screening and get straight through.

beryl hatton says:
2 November 2016

BT should give these phones or their technology FREE to existing customers. They make enough money out of us already and it is not fair to ask for more when they have the technology to deal with it.

Roger Parsons says:
25 January 2016

I keep getting automated calls to my mobile phone from somebody and when you answer the call you get a recorded message played to you. I keep adding these numbers to my reject call list but they seem to use loads of different numbers all beginning with 0843 so when they are on the reject list they just use another 0843 number. They are a pain in the butt. I also sometimes get calls with no number displayed and when I answer them they just hang up, another pain in the butt.

Roger, there’s a simple answer. Change your outgoing message to say that everyone should leave a message and you will call back immediately if you can. Then, if you’re suspicious of a number, let it go to autoanswer, and if it’s a real person you recognize, answer right away, before the reply beep. Or go one better and buy TrueCall, Call Guardian or BT 8600 phones, which screen even better than this.

Once the number of call blockers reaches a critical level, cold callers will find that their productivity is too low to justify their efforts.

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Far too many by far, sometimes up to a dozen per day. Gov appears to be powerless or unwilling or inept at dealing with this problem, particularly if calls are coming in from overseas.

Help, do something effective! Make a difference!!!

Jane says:
2 February 2016

My elderly Mother is frequently getting calls from the green deal providers promising money savings. She is distressed and alarmed by this. She is now being told that it doesn’t matter if she already been surveyed for this it would save her monies to do it again. We’ve check on this and the deal is the same. They then seem to work through a lengthy questioner. Being polite my mother feels it’s rude to hang up and finds herself ‘hooked’. Maybe the government & council needs to sort it’s own house out here?

I’ve had six nuisance calls in last 4 days – four from India, claiming to be doing a survey and most irate when I refused, one from a car crash company, and 1 I missed. This is less than it used to be. My main number is ex-directory as well.

I believe the alleged survey calls are directed at getting information that will enable scammers to hack email and bank accounts, from the nature of the questions asked – about suppliers and things like your favourite colour. The only time I fell for this, thinking it was a real survey, I realised how pointed the questions were getting and misled the scammers or refused to answer. Sometimes these guys call 6 times a day for a week or so. Fortunately “Microsoft Service Centre” seem to have given up on me for time being. All these people use internet numbers and I notice these display now, though of course they are not real numbers.

The car crash companies are quite funny – they refuse to believe I haven’t been in any car incident and don’t have a car anyway. But they are still a waste of time and energy and I dislike having to get angry to get rid of them. I hope the new BT initiative will cut this down and that all providers, including mobile providers, do the same.

My husband gets withheld number calls from a number of medical teams (especially oncology outpatients dept) involved in his cancer care. They say they cannot reveal the number they are calling from or they would be inundated with calls that can be screened via the switchboard number. So sometimes we do answer withheld calls – although waiting for them to identify themselves via the answer phone and then answer the call is probably the best way. Perhaps there could be some sort of an awareness campaign for those sectors (like the health sector) that feel they must protect themselves from unwanted calls to ALWAYS leave a message and expect that if the person is home and hears who is calling, then the call will be answered.

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Why not campaign for BT to apply a high charge for withholding a caller’s number, and pass this on to all re-sellers? The government will love it as well, as it would result in collecting more VAT. If the charge was so much per call, then a telephone spammer’s bill would soon rack up.

If the government still refuses to order the NHS and similar departments to provide a calling number, a high charge per call will force them to change their minds.

What a good idea for BT to charge for withheld numbers, I get a lot but my Call Guardian from BT filters out the good from the bad and only genuine callers get through.

Yvonne says:
19 April 2016

They annoy the heck out of me

Companies should also be required to register their numbers on a central database or make them searchable on the Internet!

Whilst showing a CLI is part of the solution, it should also be an offence to spoof a CLI by showing fake CLIs generated by computerised automatic calling system.

We ourselves are overwhelmed by nuisance calls, many of which can bypass our call baring device which, unfortunately, we had to abandon because it interfered with the answerphone (stopped it working).

Legislation needs to be robust and enforceable. Perhaps a technical system requires to be developed to intersect and cut redirect computerised automatic systems, including those from abroad, to a message of explanation.

kev inn says:
14 December 2016

My story is the same. Im self employed. I have abandoned meetings, finished mobile calls early, slid dangerously donw ladders and gone racing from the car park to get to my phone only to be greeted with one of these robot calls. I get up to 5 a day, every day. Always fake CLIs, always automated calls. I tried a ‘call angel’ call blocker to stop international or witheld numbers but it unfortunatly also blocks most mobile numbers that start +0044, useless for me as my clients are often also self employed and use their mobiles to riung me for business. BT/Openreach already have the technology to block fake CLIs but dont.

Most of the calls I get from withheld numbers are either from the local council, or local hospital. Most nuisance calls use spoofed numbers, numbers that are clearly not even valid.

I opted out of this particular race last year when I got a call screening phone, I still get the scammers call but they never get passed the screening process so the phone never rings.

I typically get around 2-3 nuisance calls a day most days, typically from the same 2 numbers.

I do think the change doesn’t go far enough, caller id needs to be free on landlines otherwise many people still want be seeing the numbers that call them

denise says:
26 April 2016

In this day and age with all technology you would think phone companies would be able to filter these calls. When receive a call to be able to press hash key or letter to let telephone company do not want to receive a call from that number again, and this service be free. Have to pay for callers number displayed on my phone, but what good does it do, as do not want to receive call from scams which most of numbers are as check them on google . One call got a while ago had about 13 0″s.

Well I’m sorry to say but I find the recently announced changes of regulations for cold callers/ nuisance callers to be introduced on or thereafter 16 May 2016 hasn’t really gone far enough. you must remember that there are a great deal of plc’s behind such calls. They will simply continue wreaking havoc and anxiety to the vast majority to ordinary phone users who are honest and vulnerable.

I agree. The government should ban all number withholding, starting with its own agencies such as the NHS.

kev inn says:
14 December 2016

NHS and doctors surgeries often have witheld numbers because they bulk-buy telephone lines through an IP based ‘virtual’ pabx. The hospital may have 1000 lines for example and/or route outside calls through other countries such as Mauritius for cost-saving reasons, meaning a valid CLI might be useless or impossible especially if a hospital shares its bulk line pool with another hospital or surgery in the same healthcare trust.

The problem of international telephone fraud and spam is so serious that it seems reasonable for Which? to campaign to the government and BT to evolve a technical solution so that people can be aware on CLI that they have been telephoned by the NHS.

John A. says:
27 April 2016

Just to note that ‘cold callers’ who use a number logged by my cordless BT phone may not in fact be using a ‘recognised number’ on ‘call back’ if seeking to reply to an expected call whose number is not already known to you. which is just as useful as ‘undisclosed’ – so this should be tackled as well. All callers should use a viable ‘call-back’ number.

John says:
27 April 2016

Despite being on the TPS, it’s a joke you still get the same folk telling me “I have had an accident” and some of them are increasingly aggressive especially when you point out they are encouraging you to commit Insurance Fraud. I was particularly annoyed by the chap that tells me he is was quite within his rights to call my number as a Market Research for Halifax Fenchurch Street, on the basis it was not a sales call! Even with call blocking software on my mobile, they just change numbers and the TPS do not seem to get these companies closed down, as can be seen by googling some of the phone numbers, and seeing how many and how long other folk have raised complaints.

Given that many cold callers don’t respect or observe the law now (e.g. about not calling people registered with TPS) why will this new law make any difference? If they don’t leave their number, who is to know what company they come from? Yesterday I had a cold call, and when I asked what company they were from, they hung up rather than tell me.
Also the Minister said on Radio 4 yesterday that if you don’t have caller ID on your phone you can always ring 1471 – but you can only do that after picking up the phone to see who is calling.
Another part of the problem is that you have to pay extra to your phone service provider to have callers’ numbers displayed; that is something that should not be an extra cost and it is therefore part of the problem. So Which?, please include this in your campaign – the free provision of caller ID to all service users, to let us see who is calling before we pick up the phone. Why should we have to pay extra to deal with this nuisance?
Finally, a lot of these calls come from overseas, where the companies couldn’t care less about being a nuisance and where (some) are happy to peddle lies, deception and fraud. Will the legislation stop them?
I think there is still a lot to do.

Yes, that is a very valid point. It is like the law that people shouldn’t listen to police radio. It was pretty stupid given that if you were breaking a serious law such as that against robbery you would hardly be put off facilitating that by listening to police radio because the latter is illegal.

What the government should be doing is to facilitate engineering that will enable telephone subscribers to buy telephone instruments that block all but invited calls. This could be achieved by banning CLI blocking, so the telephone subscriber at every number called can know who is calling.

In addition, international action could ensure that all other countries did the same. This could be achieved by refusing any traffic from countries that do not comply, or at the very least implementing calling country identification CCI. Telephone subscribers could then automatically ban calls from specific countries if their telephone instruments could be programmed so to do.

Ian says:
5 May 2016

Of course, the latest development is that the CLI shown is a premium rate number. When callers receive a nuisance call some then inflict further pain on their pocket, rather then merely wasting more time, if they are foolish enough to call it back.

Nashga says:
13 May 2016

I’m not sure why Which and the Goverment seem to think this is major step forward. The point is that the nuisance is the cold call – that’s what should be stopped – no unsolicited calls please – make the practice itself illegal!

That’s an interesting concept, Nashga! No unsolicited calls, so presumably you require a letter asking whether they might ring? Of course, ‘no unsolicited mail’ precludes that! And if people arrive in person to ask to phone you, they will meet a sticker on the door forbidding unsolicited visitors. That really IS a ‘my home is my locked-and-barred castle’ situation. No new neighbour may call round; no vendor from whom you have made a purchase may warn you of possible dangers; no hospital or surgery may offer you cancer tests; no local council or utility company may send you anything to which you have not already given specific, individual assent If this is our future, it will leave me feeling very isolated!

A further suggestion for your Brave New World: no advertiser may place before your eyes or ears any item to which you have not assented in advance – such as hoardings, bus and tube adverts and radio adverts in shops.

The difference with a telephone call is that a bell rings demanding your attention. A letter or email can be ignored much more easily, or even responded to when you have had a chance to consider it.

That’s a canard, JohndeRivaz. We can perfectly well ignore a phone call if we haven’t trained ourselves to give it priority. Best thing is to let a machine pick up the call, then respond if you want. I use the TrueCall system, in BT’s 8500 system, and that makes it simple, but any old-fashoined answering machine will do, especially those that let you listen in and answer only of you want to. YOU are in charge – so TAKE charge!