/ 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.

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.

You have summed up the TPS perfectly. I wonder how many millions this uselss organisation costs the taxpayer annually and I bet more than a few six figure salaries abound.

Mary says:
21 May 2014

TPS is a joke. It seems to me if you register with them, more nuisance calls are received. As for the government’s “green deal” scheme………………. I have lost track of the number of callers that have been told “I am not interested” !!!!!!!!!!!!! These nuisance callers should not be allowed to withhold their number. Anyone receiving one of these calls should be able to contact the company making the call and stop any future calls…………….in an ideal world!!!!!!!!!

Stan says:
21 May 2014

I rigorously reported all nuisance calls and texts to either the TPS or ICO using the excellent link on the Which website. Texts were also reported to my mobile phone provider. This seemed to have a beneficial effect, but then numbers of nuisance calls started to increase again. I have now bought the BT phone which diverts nuisance calls directly and silently to the answer machine. They are still there, but they don’t disturb us. Bliss!

Just to prove how pathetic the fines in the UK are. The ICO just posted a tweet with a link just now, in the link it states…

“The raid follows an announcement by the ICO on Tuesday that a Yorkshire direct marketing firm and a Devon PPI claims company were told they face fines totalling £140,000 for breaching electronic marketing rules.”

£140k !!! What a joke.

If imprisonment for the CEO of persistent offenders was available to the courts and regulators, that might be an effective deterrent! The buck stops at the top.

Or community service, installing free call-screening devices for vulnerable people at their companies’ expense.

Prison is very costly and should be reserved for people who are a serious physical danger to the public.

I think the solution to unsolicited marketing calls would be to withdraw the ability for people to withhold their number when telephoning. After all if a salesman were to call at someone’s door with a sack over his head would any of them seriously expect the householder to open the door?

People who have a reason to want to withhold their telephone number should be offered an alternative service, for which they would have to pay, which gave some other uniquely identifying information to the caller line identification system.

Telephone subscribers who got a nuisance call from one of them would then be able to block any future calls from that identity easily.

Perhaps discussion with BSkyB should turn to accounts for The Cloud wifi, where to use The Cloud wifi spots you have to consent to them sharing your details with pretty much whoever they wish…..

I don’t use Sky’s The Coud wifi, only subscribe to their TV package and have never given them consent to share my details with third parties. Nevertheless I’m convinced that the majority of nuisance callers have obtained my telephone number, name and address from Sky illegally selling it to them.

JLG says:
23 May 2014

We changed our mobile provider to Tesco and ever since we have been plagued with texts and calls both on our mobile and our private number when I asked one caller where he got out number from he put the phone down on me. Number withheld. This happens with all our calls. We are now getting calls about our house insurance (due for renewal in Aug). They are really pushy. The bank must have given our details as we have been with them for the past 10years.!!!

JLG, Have you ever used a comparison site and entered your mobile number there by any chance ? If you have then there’s your answer.

Another possible explanation is that Tesco have given you a recycled phone number; and the previous owner of that number had entered the number on a web site at some time in the past

Jack says:
23 May 2014

TPS and ICO could find lists of nuisance calls on the internet. They are obviously not interested. Neither is the government.
How would MPs like to have their phone numbers used for nuisance calls?
Most calls have “number not known”.
As a start TPS could invite people to register if they want all such calls blocked.
Telephone providers would be obliged to act on this list and block these calls where requested.

Michael Brockington says:
23 May 2014

I am fed up with getting nuisance withheld calls, often a recorded message. I have even been woken up the middle of the night with these calls. The trouble is when our G.P. telephones, this is always withheld, as do the NHS generally and some companies, which means I usually answer all these calls.

When will Which start campaigning for the NHS not to withhold their numbers?

This seems to be a fundamental problem with call screening which if resolved would enable thousands of people to be able to block unwanted calls.

It would be technically possible for the NHS technicians to make their public incoming number appear on caller line identification, so the actual office line being used for the outgoing call would not be notified to the patient.

NHS patients are anxious enough without being the victims of telephone spam. Reducing every possible source of stress should aid their recovery and therefore reduce NHS costs.

The real problem isn’t the TPS: it’s that the scammers have got around the rules that the TPS have to abide by. For example, once you’re TPS registered, UK cold callers are now banned? OK – call from abroad.

I get many calls a day on three numbers. One of them has been unlisted for 17 years and another is a mobile. Some of the calls for the unlisted number are to a man who’s been dead for 15 years. The problem here is the sale of lists of numbers on the crooked market. I reckon that clever criminals are breaking up lists, old and new, and recombining the number/name combinations into new lists – some of which sell very cheaply, while lists of known ‘suckers’ (people who’ve already been cheated) go for high prices to very plausible scammers; the more detail provided, the more the contact costs. This is a police matter.

But many of the ‘genuine’ cold calls are from real UK companies who want to sell reasonable, though maybe overpriced goods and services to us. These are the people that the TPS is allowed to chase if you’re registered, but I think that, frankly, they’re overwhelmed. And for the bigger companies, there’s a simple get-around. They hire a ‘leads’ company to chase up business for them, and this company either works from (say) an Indian call centre, or uses a line diversion service which routes their calls through a foreign number – cheap to do today. Neither of these is illegal; neither is covered by the TPS.

What we really need, and I’m sure that Which? is working on it, is a law to target the ORIGINATOR of the cold calls in the UK, not the actual caller. So if, for example, Bloggs Solicitors wants your no-win-no-fee compensation claim, and hires Dodgy Leads SARL in France to do the phoning, then Bloggs will be fined for every TPS-listed number phoned on their behalf. No getouts. The we have only the scammers, the illegals, to chase, and they’d never obey the rules anyway.

What a good idea. If the object of this is to sell a service, however legitimate the service may be, then sooner or later contact details must be provided for that service, even if it just bank details to send a payment. Those contact details could then be used to apply whatever regulations there are against unsolicited calls. If the Data Protection Act blocks this as far as the bank account is concerned, then the Act needs modification

Obviously it would be a bad idea to ban all advertising, but banning all telephone advertising may be worth considering. The telephone is different to other forms of advertising because the telephone is extremely intrusive. A spam email can easily be deleted in your own time, an unsolicited letter can have the name and address torn off and be recycled, again in your own time. But when a bell rings there is a compulsion to answer it, even if it means running up the garden and, possibly falling over, in order to get there in time.

Callers at the door (such as people reading meters) have to show identity. No one would consider letting meter readers wear a mask so no one can see their faces. But this is what people are allowed to do with a telephone. It is absurd.

Stan says:
24 May 2014

My advice to Michael would be to buy the BT phone that blocks calls by type. Withheld numbers are stopped and shunted to the answer machine, but you create a VIP list including the doctor which will pass through

How can this work if the doctor is allowed to and withholds his number?

Does he get a voice message telling him to input a pass code? If so does this irritate him?

What happens if he enters the pass code and then you still don’t answer on account of being out or “in the shower”.

Stan says:
24 May 2014

Assigning VIP status to the withheld numbers you want to receive let’s them through

How does it distinguish one withheld number from another?

As a long term solution, is it possible to envisage a system whereby one could ‘forward’ a nuisance call to an officlal number of the telephone service provider (BT or other) who had developed software which enabled the call to be traced? If so, then legal/diplomatic processes could be initiated to block the problem at source. I expect this would take several years to take full effect, possibly necessitating an extra button on new phone handsets, but since the average frequency of such nuisance calls seems to be at least one a day and probably increasing, all options need considering.

Another good idea, but it seems a real technical problem to do this, as you hinted.

It just goes to show what an outdated technology voice telephony is compared to emails. The latter can easily be forwarded, and most banks and other financial organisations have special addresses to which spoof and phishing emails can be forwarded.

The idea of ringing a bell in someone else’s house to get attention seems bizarre by comparison. If email between private subscribers had been established first I can’t see any “bell ringing” technology ever getting a look in. (The post man only rings the bell if there is a signed for letter or a parcel.)

John, my computer goes ding dong when a new email arrives – this should count as a bell. It is not as loud or as long as the telephone though so unless I am near my computer at the time I won’t hear it. On topic, we must be lucky on our phone – we occasionally get withheld or international calls that are fixing my computer, asking about my accident, or simply silent (I worry about those in case someone is simply seeing if we are at home). We are registered with the TPS so maybe it works. For those that do get through, we all have ways of dealing with them. I do feel sorry for elderly people who a) like phone calls and b) are not as savvy at dealing with unwanted ones as others. It would be useful if a telephony expert would contribute to this debate, which at the moment seems to have an insoluble problem on its hands.

This matter of nuisance calls just underlines as to how outdated voice telephony really is.

The difference is that the email is there to read whenever you want to.

With voice telephony the caller will disconnect after a couple of rings, meaning that when the bell rings you have a compulsion to act fast, even if it means coming out of the shower naked or dashing up the garden. I would urge people, particularly elderly people, to avoid this compulsion and ignore the bell. If you have arranged a time, then be prepared and relaxed to take your call.

Many perfectly legitimate callers make their calls and then go out, so you can’t ring back, adding to the frustration. Also, people will leave messages like “please ring back urgently” without saying why, which can cause (often needless) anxiety for the recipient.

No, email is far better, or if you want a chat use Skype at a pre-arranged time. It has a built in messaging system so that arranging a time is very easy. There is video and the sound quality is far better than voice telephony.

Hmm. So voice telephony is outdated? Why then, does every mobile ’email/text/web device’ also have a voice facility – which people I pass in the street seem to be using more than they text, etc.? Mobile calls are still more expensive than fixed line phones for most people, and my business fixed line is called a lot more than the mobile. A matter of trust, maybe? Video calls are getting easier to use, but are not yet commonly offered on mobiles: cost. There is still a place for communicating by voice, whatever new technology comes up, and the good old ‘telephone’ will continue in use until it becomes uneconomic, which is far from true for most people now.

The issue of nuisance calls is already common on mobiles; so are nuisance texts. The TPS is clearly in need of updating and overhauling; it also needs teeth – but it was set up to do a specific job and it’s not the TPS’s fault that it’s been bypassed by the nuisances and criminals. Do go on to explain whose fault it is, though – and don’t blame politicians, whose JOB is to react, not to innovate.

“it’s not the TPS’s fault that it’s been bypassed by the nuisances and criminals” but I do blame the bosses at the TPS for not being proactive enough, realising they’re not fit for purpose and lobbying government to change their mandate so they can do the job they’re needed to do. But oh yeah, why should someone probably earning over £100k do anything that might mean they’d actually have to do any work. Silly me.

Well, my comment was intended to provoke thought. Voice telephony obviously isn’t as outdated as all that as otherwise fewer people would use it as indeed you say.

However I do suggest that it could become more outdated as people get fed up with “telephone tag” and voice messages being misunderstood. A New Scientist article on 12 February 2004 suggested that more people lie on the telephone than any other medium. This is partly because you are not supposed to record calls. This is augmented sometimes by the phenomenon of people hearing what they want to hear, and with no record to go back to they can’t check.

Anyone who wishes to receive marketing calls should have to opt-in, and it should be made illegal to call landlines and mobiles unless a person has given permission to be contacted.

I have never in my life bought anything as a result of an unsolicited call, and I never will. I don’t buy from doorstep salespersons either.

I will choose who I buy goods and services from. Anyone who pesters me is likely to be blacklisted.

But you can only enforce a law if the country of the caller and the called agree to do so. Hence you need an international agreement. I am not sure that expanding the scope of such agreements is particularly likely in the present political climate.

I appreciate this problem, but it would be a step forward to introduce legislation in this country. We should have taken action when companies started to make unsolicited calls.

These junk callers should be banned as well fined to stop them invading your privacy! Ive changed my message on my answer machine to sorry i can!t ans your call at the moment but if you leave your name & no will call you back as soon as pos but however unsolicited sales calls will not be returned bye. And i can tell you its working i get hardly any of these calls now. Joy.

As we go round and round it becomes clearer and clearer that this is a huge irritant and real cost to everyone, individuals and the country as a whole. It becomes clearer and clearer that there is a lack of will and imagination on the part of the companies and agencies that could do something about it and are paid to do something about it. Indeed, some are gob-smackingly complacent or arrogant – the public service agencies, and the companies, the Telcos, are too busy making money out of the calls – or are making them themselves, TalkTalk was recently fined and EE are now on the radar of the ICO . . .

There are several simple answers that would remove most of the problem. I have been writing to my MP and have posted here and have agitated whenever and wherever I can to get them applied.

First, the Politicians must put us first, the people who vote. We must have primacy, our privacy and ‘data’ must be foremost. When that is clearly stated in law the necessary sanctions should be laid down. As said above, derisory fines are no deterrent. As with health and safety individuals must feel the heat. Legislation MUST identify organisational officers who will suffer criminal sanction if their company, governmental organisation or charity (oh yes, they do it too!) breaks the rules.

Then, the carriers, the Telcos, must be made responsible for implementing the simple measures that will allow tracing action. They already have all the basic data and are able to produce it if handed a Police request or a court order. . . and if the Police can’t be bothered, West Midlands Police can’t, they tell me we can’t even have a crime number for persistent, known callers to the degree that they are committing harassment . . . then we, the people should have the right in law to apply for the record of who has been calling us, it should be recognised as akin to trespass.

After that the beneficiaries of nuisance calls should be made responsible, not only the call centre or intermediary. That will complete the loop back to the responsible person(s) or controlling mind(s).

Of course, I, like William, suspect that these highly paid functionaries will still prefer to collect their salaries without doing anything however, with the right ‘joined up’ laws in place we can at least use judicial review to get them off their backsides!

Dont get why you people keep saying it issent the tps fault. They are clearly NOT doing their Job properly which is when you register with them they are supposed to stop these cold callers phoning you. They should over haul the system as it is totally useless as it is. I complained to them about a year ago now and they said they would send me a complaint form out! Im still waiting for it!!! They are rubbish and i would be out of a job if i worked like they do. So they are very much to BLAME!!!! Its their service! JUST SAYING….

One form of funding the TPS gets is by selling lists of numbers for companies to check against before they ring. I don’t this this list is all that cheap. So dodgy companies won’t bother paying and “legit” ones that are strapped for cash won’t either especiall if the chances of getting caught are low, and the fact that you seem to get a warning 1st before the laughable fine.

FYI An annual licence for use of the full list is £2640, take from the TPS website

So as you see, the way they’re setup to do business has them at a huge disadvantage already.

Maybe companies that have a need to call Joe or Josephine public should have to pay to register that requirement and get the lists free. And companies that call without registering should be kicked into touch. Assets of the directors and companies seized.

Brian says:
26 May 2014

The way I deal with nuisance calls is simple I have an answerphone and when it rings I don’t have to stop watching TV or whatever I am doing.If it is a normal call coming from somebody I know they leave a message or if I have time to rush over tho the phone I answer their call.