/ Technology

Nuisance calls: big-name brands can be to blame

Toy telephone

A year ago the ICO’s Simon Entwisle wrote about the top five myths of nuisance calls and texts. In this post he adds a contender for number six: that a small minority of rogue companies are behind the calls and texts.

It is certainly true that organisations with little regard for the law do exist, and we spend a chunk of our time looking to target them, but there are just as many – if not more – messages and calls coming from big name, respected organisations.

That’s borne out in the quarterly enforcement update we’ve published at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The update lists the action we’ve taken this year, and features some well-known brands.

Perhaps the most eye-catching will be the mobile phone network EE (Everything Everywhere). We have concerns about their compliance with the law around both sales calls and marketing text messages, and we’ve already been in touch with them to be clear that enforcement action is a possibility. Our concerns are prompted by consumer concerns, and as we work with them over the coming months, we’ll be monitoring what consumers are telling us about them.

Making companies change

With the right changes, it can be a positive journey; one that BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting) has already completed. They were identified as prompting a large number of complaints before Christmas, but we’ve since worked with them to improve processes and we now feel enforcement action is unlikely to be required.

That improving of processes is crucial. The majority of organisations do not want to make nuisance calls and texts – after all, annoyed consumers don’t tend to sign up to a new product or service. But through poor processes, they’re either getting their call lists wrong – for instance calling customers who’ve left several years before – or they’re not being clear about how they’ll use a customer’s details, so someone signing up to their service doesn’t realise the terms and conditions mean they’ll receive marketing calls.

Being contacted by the ICO is usually enough of a jolt to these businesses to get them to sort out their processes, and the complaints quickly tail off. And where we don’t see the improvements we expect, we have the power to look at enforcement action: we’ve issued three enforcement notices already this year (and one preliminary notice), while the fine we issued in April took our total fines in this area to over £1m. We’ve also prosecuted three lead generation and marketing companies for non-notification offences, criminal breaches under the Data Protection Act.

New nuisance call threats

Our work, alongside that of the other regulators and organisations working hard to combat nuisance calls and texts, has prompted a significant reduction in the number of concerns being reported to us over the last year. But while the trend is positive, there’s no time for complacency, with a slight rise from January to March. While we can put some of this down to the same seasonal rise we saw last year as people return from the Christmas and New Year break, it shows there’s still plenty more work to be done.

Finally, it’s worth noting the statistics suggest that the nature of the calls and texts being made is changing. We have seen a significant reduction in the number of concerns about messages relating to Payment Protection Insurance (PPI), with a growth in those around green energy initiatives and so-called ‘scrappage schemes’. The latter two are now responsible for 42% of all the concerns raised, and will be a focus of our work moving forward.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Simon Entwisle, ICO Director of Operations, and was originally published on the ICO’s blog. All opinions expressed here are Simon’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


“and we’ve already been in touch with them [EE] to be clear that enforcement action is a possibility” And isn’t that the problem here, you’re too soft on companies that breach the rules. Surely slapping them with a multi million pound fine straight away would have more of an effort not only on them but others. And what’s with such low fines away? Everytime I see you publish a fine they’ seem sooo small.

And whats being done about companies like BT who appear to have let numerous customer details slip through their fingers in far off call centres, See numerous news articles in the press dating back years.


Fines are a waste of time. They just become an operating expense. Imagine if you were only ever fined for theft – and the value of what you stole exceeded the fine. If you didn’t have a consience then you’d be in profit. Other sanctions that hurt are necessary; such as modifying their license conditions, maybe restricting the number of customers by forcing them to transfer some – any ideas? But as we see with other industries and banks misdemeanours, fines achieve nothing.


Fines are only a waste of time if they are not big enough. They need to hurt senior management, hurt the shareholders and damage the reputation of the organisation. The latter could be achieved by implementing other sanctions. Fines and sanctions should take into account whether a company has a good record or a history of poor treatment of consumers.


Try Credit Suisse – $2.6bn is a large fine by any standards. But they will no doubt manage to pay it and continue trading – all in a day’s work. The CEO has no plans to resign, the shares went up 1%, and no licence has been withdrawn in New York. I maintain that, in general, fines are not a very severe penalty. In the public sector, they come from the taxpayer. In the private sector they come out of the business – and probably reduce tax liability? If you want to punish misdemeanors you either have to punish individuals who might be directly responsible, or you damage the business trading. There may be other effective ways of course – any ideas?


Here’s one. With immediate effort ban all board members from holding such a position for 10 years. so they can’t just move to another company. Whistle-blowers (from the board) of wrongfully practice to get partial immunity.

And yes $2.6 bn is beyond my ability to pay, but not the fines of £250k we see in this country, now they are just laughably small.

Business law needs to be tightened up too. Fines and other similar expenses shouldn’t be allowed to offset current of future tax liable, especially were a company can “afford” to pay a bonus.

Sandra Harrison says:
21 May 2014

How can anything be done about calls I get to my mobile where the number is with held? I do not answer them but they continue sometimes 2/3 times a day. Have no way of knowing if they come from the same number or several different numbers


What is the point pf the TPS I have made about a dozen complaints over the last year and not a word back. They should be scrapped as they are so ineffective especially when one cold call swore and told me to do my worse when threatened with the TPS . To make matters worse I am now plagued with calls several a day from the governments green deal scheme !!!


TPS have no powers to investigate, they can only refer a complaint to the ICO; so effectively they are “useless”. However, when you do report a company directly to the ICO, they write back and tell you to report the complaint to the TPS, so basically the “buck” is passed around, until you give up. And you are right about the lack of response from the TPS, I have never received a response from the TPS unless I chase them for a reply.