/ Technology

'Regulators must punish more nuisance callers'

Man staring with phone

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee today published its nuisance calls report. In this guest post, the Committee’s Chairman, John Whittingdale MP, outlines their recommendations.

Most of the time, an unsolicited marketing call is, at best, an unwanted nuisance. People who have registered with the Telephone Preference Service are particularly annoyed – and rightly so – when they receive marketing calls from individuals and organisations unknown to them.

An offshoot of the Direct Marketing Association, the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), can do nothing more than provide a slap on the wrist to offending callers, while its overseer, the Direct Marketing Commission, is hamstrung by an inability to gain access to relevant information because of data protection provisions. It is left to the Information Commissioner to take action; he does so all too rarely even when the TPS is able to identify the nuisance caller.

The Direct Marketing Commission has shown a willingness, at least in principle, to get involved and badger those who break the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations. We should support them in this endeavour; allowing them to share relevant information would be a start. Serial and serious offenders could then be targeted by the Information Commissioner who has real enforcement powers. He needs to use these much more often.

Making nuisance call complaints

The communications regulator, Ofcom, has started to respond to the growing problem of nuisance calls but, so far, it has limited itself to dealing with a tiny fraction of silent and abandoned calls. Many of these are the result of automated diallers in call centres. Like the ICO, Ofcom needs more information and greater incentives to tackle the problem.

People who receive nuisance calls – and millions of us do – need to have the means to report them to the relevant regulator. BT’s recent decision to charge explicitly for its basic caller display service is a deeply regrettable indication and we hope they will reconsider it; the same can be said of other communications service providers who likewise charge.

Finally, consumers don’t need a single regulator. What they should have is a single point of contact. Which? has shown initiative in providing a useful tool that points consumers to the relevant regulator. However, a single simple online complaints form which can be automatically directed for appropriate response would be better. And the 15% of the population without internet access, many of them in vulnerable groups, should have a single telephone number they can call. This nuisance call complaints line should be advertised, naturally enough, on the bill we pay.

So what happens next? The Government must respond to my Committee’s report within 60 days. However, we’re also expecting the Government to soon publish an Action Plan on what it proposes to do for the millions who are fed up with nuisance calls and texts.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from John Whittingdale MP, Chairman for the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on nuisance calls. All opinions expressed here are John’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


It is well acknowledged that unsolicited marketing calls are nuisance calls, and I very much support the individuals and organisations who are trying to overcome this problem. On Which? Conversation we have had example of the hassle these calls can cause, particularly to people who are ill or whose mental health is failing and may find these calls distressing.

What concerns me most of all is that market research calls are generally not regarded as nuisance calls. Here I am referring to genuine market research calls rather than the bogus ones that purport to be market research, often starting with a statement that the caller is not trying to sell anything.

I am certainly not trying to ban market research calls but to push for them to be ‘opt-in’. At present, there is no way of opting out, and the Market Research Society did not even respond to my communication when I made this suggestion.

The TPS should not be an opt-in system but an opt-out system. It should be illegal to make unsolicited calls of a commercial nature to any telephone number unless the subscriber has opted in to receive such calls. Nobody wants to receive these nuisance calls so a blanket ban should be imposed by default.

The fair telecoms campaign has reacted to the CMS Committee report through its blog and a news release.

The ICO is not, and can never be, an effective regulator of telemarketing as its scope is too wide and its powers inevitably too weak to address the type and degree of behaviour that we are suffering. The relevant and appropriate regulators (e.g. the Claims Management Regulator, DECC and the FCA) must intervene directly with strict rules, or probably a total prohibition, on use of telemarketing by, or on behalf of, those licensed to operate in the relevant markets.

Ofcom’s failure to use its ‘Persistent Misuse’ powers of Notification, Enforcement of requirements and financial Penalty against those identified as causing unnecessary annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety is a disgrace. Its attempt to deploy a pseudo-regulatory approach is a misuse of the powers, especially as this includes a declared and specific tolerance of the practice of hanging up in silence when a call is answered. When Ofcom deliberately weakened its statement of policy on use of these powers 8 years ago, this helped to set the tone for the situation that we now face.

Citizens and consumers need a body independent of the regulators to handle reports, channel them appropriately and ensure that appropriate action is taken in line with appropriate policies. Regulators have to look towards those who they regulate – this body must look towards citizens and consumers and their interests.

Tinkering with a failed structure, as proposed by the Committee, several MPs and Which? may lead to a little more action, but it is most unlikely to have any serious impact on the problem.

Whilst this situation continues, individuals will be exploited by commercial operators peddling so-called “solutions” that may be expensive, ineffective or outright scams. Furthermore, our joy in use of the telephone network will continue to be undermined, as many people will continue to distrust all incoming calls. (Experience will show that there is no comfort to be gained by seeing a number on a caller display unit, unless it is one that is specifically recognised!)

Whilst other campaigning efforts will be likely to fade away, flushed with very modest, but over-hyped, success, we will continue to press for effective and proportionate action to be taken to address the problem that exists.

The worst thing for me is receiving a nuisance call while out of the country. I get charged to receive these calls at an extortionate rate and I can’t do anything about it.

– Businesses should not be allowed to call without sending their number.
– BT actually knows the calling number even when withheld, but wont tell you unless investigated by the police.
– When a number is reported lots of times the ICO should force BT (or whoever) to do a search of it’s database to see how many texts or calls that number sent and fine them for each number registered on the TPS.
– The punishment must make if financially unviable for companies to text / call TPS registered numbers.

When I’m not in the UK, I have a Flextel 07010 number which forwards to the mobile number of a SIM card from the country I’m visiting. This costs the caller a lot, but costs me nothing. Even better, Flextel sends me an e-mail with the caller’s number, but with the last three digits blanked out if they withheld it. It helps to identify exactly where the caller is, even if I don’t have their full number. When I’m abroad, I put a voicemail greeting on my usual UK mobile number asking callers to redial the Flextel number. This way I don’t miss any genuine calls and I don’t pay to receive incoming calls. Even better, I pay the same as a local for data and local phone calls without paying any rip-off roaming charges.

PeterM says:
6 March 2014

While I have nothing against FleXtel, and have used their service in the past, I think that unless you warn callers the cost for dialling 070 numbers is higher, they might mistakenly assume that it costs the same as for “ordinary” UK mobile numbers (when from a mobile it can work out very expensive).

Also, while I accept your solution works for you, the days of “rip-off roaming charges” may alter in coming years, not only because of legislation within the EU for cross-border calls, but because some networks, such as Three, allow customers visiting anumber of countries (OK, only about 10 or so at present), to “roam” while using their UK allowance and being charged little or no extra. If they open up services in more of Europe, and further afield, then excessive charges (at least for Three customers) could be a piece of history.

tom gray says:
6 December 2013

The main hindrance to effective action on this is the lack of coordination. The BT Nuisance Calls Bureau (0800411422) can trace calls from withheld numbers, but they are not allowed to tell you who the caller is. They can report such calls to Police but you first need to raise a complaint with the Police who are not going to take action unless there is some serious element to the nuisance call, like abuse or threat etc. If you report a nuisance call to TPS they can do nothing unless you tell them the company or the phone number (which you don’t have). The same applies to ICO. Why BT or other provider is unable to provide caller information to the ICO is not at all clear.

The Truecall system appears to offer a remedy – at a cost, comprising a cost for the special phone and a further rental increment from BT for the caller identification facility. This system allows you to designate caller numbers that are welcome and all other callers from withheld or untraceable overseas numbers are given a recorded message asking them to leave a number where they can be contacted. That should normally get rid of them. Given that you are already paying a rental which gives all these twerps the facility to call you, it is unreasonable to lay out more money.

Incidentally, as far as I can see there is no truth in the often repeated excuse given by nuisance callers that your registration with TPS lapses after 6 months. They are lying.

Can you confirm what you say about BT having reversed a policy change made in 2003?

In 2003, the BT nuisance call bureau adopted a policy of providing information about callers who withheld their CLI, to Ofcom and the ICO, as being “proper authorities” when investigating cases of nuisance. Previously the Police and the courts had been regarded as being the only “proper authorities” able to receive such information.

This information, in relation to a particular caller, provided the basis for the first investigation into Silent Calls by Ofcom. It remains the only such investigation undertaken in response to a complaint from a citizen. Ofcom has subsequently changed its policy, and now refuses to investigate individual complaints – claiming that it is unable to do so.

Unfortunately the outcome of this case, which formed the basis for Ofcom’s continuing policy, was for Ofcom to tolerate the habitual practice of hanging up in silence, so long as sufficient other calls were made to leave those terminated in silence as a low percentage.

More information about that particular case, and the BT change of policy (allegedly now reversed), is available from the complainant. I can be contacted through the fair telecoms website.

Market research calls really should be made opt in only

“BT’s recent decision to charge explicitly for its basic caller display service is a deeply regrettable indication and we hope they will reconsider it;” Why not pass a law to make phone providers provide that service for free, that’ll sort that out. Hoping they’ll reconsider it will achieve nothing.

I can guarantee that everyone who receives a nuisance call has a phone, so why not give phone users the ability to enter a simple code either during or immediately after receiving such a call. And when the phone provider gets say 100 different users each “reporting” the call, all further calls from that number are automatically blocked.

Market research calls should also be covered by the nuisance calls scheme. Many are just fronts to get you follow up sales call.

The practice of selling/passing on consumer details should also be banned.

The practice of hiding /withholding your number should also be carefully looked at. Preferably companies should be banned from doing this.

Genuine market research calls where only anonymised data is collected (i.e. they don’t collect your name, address, date of birth, etc) should be allowed.

Lead collection calls should not be allowed (whether the caller claims the call is “market research” or not is irrelevant).

Even genuine market research calls are nuisance calls. They must be opt-in.

It is unlikely that a sufficient number of volunteers would be found to make market and opinion research by telephone worthwhile if respondents had to consent before the call was made, rather than when asked by the caller.

The fair telecoms campaign believes that the relevant regulators of each sector of activity have to make the fundamental decision about whether to permit unsolicited calling and if so, under what terms – regardless of whether it be classed as “direct marketing” by the terms of the PECR. In many cases we believe that total prohibition is justified.

There may be a case for general market and opinion research by telephone to be banned. Collecting information only from those who volunteer to have their opinions and preferences noted would be a very different exercise – little more than a large “focus group”.

My personal view is that properly conducted genuine market or opinion research calls cannot be considered to be a “nuisance”, in general. Like many other perfectly proper calls, they may occur at inconvenient times and not be “wanted”. I believe that we must focus our attention on effective measures to prohibit calls that may be generally classified as a nuisance and get on with the reality of life – we may choose to answer a ringing telephone when we would rather have not done so.

The few seconds taken to decline an invitation to participate in a genuine survey are as nothing when set against the true “nuisance” that we are fighting.

A genuine market research call is likely to begin with the caller announcing their name and which company they work for, and it’s likely to be one you have heard of such as mori, gallup, populus, etc. Additionally, the first questions asked are likely to be general demographic data (two residents aged 30 to 40, one working, one dog, two kids) rather than name, address, exact age, etc. It will be obvious from the questions that they are collecting anonymised aggregated data rather than specifics that can be tied to a particular identity.

This is often the case but not always, in my experience. However market research calls are conducted, they are still nuisance calls for many of us. They need not be.

My suggestions are:

1. Make market research calls opt-in, with fines for those organisations that ignore this requirement.

2. Invite the public to take part in market research on specific subjects by use of websites with tick boxes and by advertising the opportunity to participate.

3. If market research is to be done via a phone conversation, provide the opportunity to arrange a mutually convenient time for the discussion.

We should all be entitled to live our lives without being pestered by unsolicited phone calls.

David – Why should market research necessitate unsolicited phone calls? Maybe we should ask people if they regard market research calls as nuisance calls. I have asked a fair number of people, and they do.

Some of our contributors to the Conversations on nuisance calls have given examples of how serious these calls are for some elderly and disabled people. It would not matter whether these are marketing calls or market research calls.

You said “There may be a case for general market and opinion research by telephone to be banned.”
That would indeed be a solution, but I am not calling for anything so drastic. Many would be happy to call a market research company if there was a small reward and a free phone number was provided.

Genuine market and opinion and research requires the largest possible sample size from the largest possible pool. Selective research, i.e. using “focus groups” of volunteers, is another method used by the industry. It is for those who use and undertake the former to make the case for it being allowed to continue – following proper methods – against the suggestion that unsolicited telephone calls should be prohibited from this sector.

Whilst any telephone call can be answered when one may have preferred not to answer it, I believe that our focus must be on the improper activity – e.g. direct marketing activity purporting to be market research. All improper activity must be identified for what it is and prohibited, using methods that can be effectively enforced. The powers of the ICO and the policies adopted by Ofcom have been shown not to be effective.

I recognise that there are those who regard their telephone number as private personal information and only wish to receive calls from invited callers. There are also those who are unable to handle calls from unknown callers properly. Both groups should be provided with the facilities and devices they need to maintain this limited relationship with the outside world by telephone. It is however an open question as to how far this should be at the expense of us all.

I am reluctant to allow the long standing failure to deal properly with those who break the law to damage the benefits to society of an open telephone network.

We will have to agree to disagree on this issue. 🙁

Would you support people at least being given the opportunity to opt-out of market research calls, David?

Firstly, I demand that proper and effective action be taken against those who illegally make unsolicited direct marketing calls without consent. That is the bulk of the problem that we are concerned with. Furthermore, I demand that Ofcom treat all cases of habitually hanging up in silence as the persistent misuse which it is, rather than tolerating the practice by those who make many other calls.

Secondly, I demand that unsolicited telephone calls be prohibited from all sectors where a significant history of misconduct had been seen (e.g. claims management) and no good case for the possibility of reasonable practice, compliant with existing regulations and new stricter rules, could be expected. I regret that none of the loud voices heard on this subject, including those of Which?, the CMS committee or the APPG share my view.

If the MRS, or some similar organisation, wished to follow the action of the DMA by establishing a opt-out register for use by its members, then I would not object. I would not however agree with the action taken over 10 years ago by adopting the absence of a number from that register as representing “consent” with reference to an instrument of law intended to prohibit inappropriate action. (This is a reference to the TPS.)

The key point is that if someone answers a call from an unknown caller, genuinely and properly conducting market research, there is no way that they should be compelled to continue the conversation. Is that not enough of an “opt-out”?

Is there an underlying assumption that if genuine market research calls were prohibited then those conducting direct marketing activity, under the guise of “research”, would also stop calling?

I fear that this may be similar to the assumption that callers who fail to provide CLI, so as to conceal their identity, would happily provide CLI that identified them, if the ability to withhold it were withdrawn.

“Is there an underlying assumption that if genuine market research calls were prohibited then those conducting direct marketing activity, under the guise of “research”, would also stop calling?”

I’m coming from a position of, the industry is broken ( albeit by the wrong uns ). So ban the practice whilst coming up with an effectively policable solution. If it takes them 100 years then tough. At least everyone will know market research calls are illegal and then hang up. At present its the wrong uns that are exploiting the market.

“I fear that this may be similar to the assumption that callers who fail to provide CLI, so as to conceal their identity, would happily provide CLI that identified them,”

Make every phone provider provide a free to opt out of no CLI’d calls. Genuine companies will soon stop hiding their CLI. Wrong uns will stop too, but at least people then have a number to complain about. At present too many calls have no number to report them, especially silent ones.

And accident chasing shouldn’t be allowed over the phone. Although that goes back to banning passing on details. I got sworn at by an accident chaser last week whilst I was trying to get details of where he got my details from. ( Its wasn’t the phone book ) so someone has passed my details on. Next time I’ll see if he;s got my car reg, but I doubt it.

“Wrong uns will stop too” actually I don’t think they will, they’ll just keep calling the USA , Canada and other countries.

I find the ones that tell me that someone from my address has been in an accident distressing despite the fact that I know that they are a scam. They make me angry as if my elderly relatives received such calls they could be distressed by them too and less able to use all the technology that there is today to check that there is no problem.

What is the best way to deal with them? I feel that I probably invite more calls with my anger.

I reported British Gas to the TPS as I am registered for cold calling me to try to sell me British Gas products, but I have received no reply. I also contacted BG and complained and they have said they have took me off there system, I live in hope!

maggie says:
10 January 2014

We are now receiving telephone calls through the night and waking up the whole house. We have children who have to go to school and we have to go to work and this is really disturbing our sleep. When I dial 1471 to see who they are the numbers are not ‘withheld’ but are ‘sorry we do not have a number for this caller’ what can we do about this as these calls are not only annoying they are damaging our health! This is not a one off it is happening two and three times a week.

PeterM says:
27 February 2014

The only thing I can suggest is to unplug your phone(s) at night to get a full night’s sleep.

Most adults have a mobile phone, and while I’m reluctant to suggest you unplug the landline [NB not any internet router, just phone handset(s), (or in the case of cordless, have the base unit power cable come via a timer switch, so it can automatically be off from say 2300 to 0630) ], the fact you probably have a mobile would mean that if necessary, your own parents could still contact you in an emergency, via the mobile, if they are already familiar with calling that and/or have their own mobiles with your mobile number in the address book.

If you and your children are losing sleep over this, then unplugging the phone to get unbroken nights seems a relatively harmless solution. Obviously it is not very convenient, and while cordless phones are very popular, the recommendation is still to have one fixed line phone (for emergencies if there is a power cut, when cordless phones won’t operate), but even some of the fixed cord phones have a ringer volume switch, for high, low, and a few have On/Off switches… more convenient than unplugging, and if you have cordless phones on a mains timer, you can leave a wired phone plugged in (ringing off or minimum) and rely on the power to the cordless base unit being off to “silence” the rest of your household phones.

‘Unknown’ numbers are not as common as ‘International’ but cannot easily be blocked on the phone network (because it is easier to block calls where number is ‘Withheld’ but not where the number is ‘unknown’).

Also, while some might want to ignore ‘Withheld’ those calls may be made by NHS staff, so probably worth screening using an answerphone that allows the caller to be heard… Of course, for confidentiality reasons, some NHS callers would not leave any information, because asking an individual to call a particular unit would in itself divulge information the recipient might not want to be known to anyone else in the same property.

maggie says:
10 January 2014

I once reported BT to the TPS for constant marketing calls after telling them to stop. I did get an apology from BT and they did stop.

Here is a solution that will solve the problem for us, and make money for the telephone companies.

Surprisingly we need to copy a French service. For one euro per month, France Telecom will provide the following service. When a caller withholds their number they receive a message asking for their name. If they leave a name, the phone then rings and France Telecom tells the subscriber the name. The call can then be taken or disconnected as the subscriber wishes.

In all cases the unwanted caller will not leave a name and the subscriber will not be troubled. Brilliant eh?

Any telephone engineers out there who can say how we could make this happen?

PeterM says:
27 February 2014

I think the 0800 reverse call service (very expensive, runs to about £4-5 for receiving a call) which was aimed at teenagers needing to “phone home” but who have seen the adverts and not known that one can ring the operator and ask for a reverse charge call, does just that – gets the caller’s name and rings the destination, asking if they will accept the call. Not sure if the caller could give their location (and then parent would know where their teenager was to be found!).

BT offers it to existing customers (but not available for new supply) as one of their 4 levels of “Ex Directory” service, but it is far more than 1 Euro – £30 per quarter (inc VAT). It’s shown in the Price List ( http://www.bt.com/pricing/current/Inland_Operator_boo/sectoc.htm Section 39, Part 3 )

My estimate of £4-5 for 0800 Reverse is out of date. Seems it is £6.00 for connection and then either £1.20 per 30 seconds (from a Payphone) or £2.40 per minute (from a landline). From a mobile, the network might charge the caller for the 0800 call, and then similar charges come into force. As can be seen from the web link above, two other services (08000 MumDad and YAK!) offer similar services to 0800 Reverse, but 08000 MumDad is about half the price of the other two.

Those services do something similar to the France Telecom service in taking a caller’s name. However the services I’ve outlined are for providing a “free to the caller, expensive for recipient” connection, but the technology must be similar – ‘A’ makes a call, records a very brief message/name…. recording played to recipient ‘B’, who decides whether to continue with the call and speak to ‘A’

I know I would be willing to use a service like that of France Telecom, at £1/ month, if it was to screen all calls. The ‘reverse charge’ systems were designed to make money for the service providers, in the main (else they would not have put up money for TV ads for the 0800 Reverse service 5+ years ago).

Isn’t this essentially what the trueCall system does?

Kaktus says:
21 February 2014

When I first joined the referencing scheme the nuisance calls virtually stopped but now
things are worse than ever. I have complained to my service provider , Virgin Media, but the only measures they suggest will cost me money. The telephone companies make money out of nuisance calls so it is a disgrace that they charge to resolve a problem of their own making.

PeterM says:
6 March 2014

But the problem is not “of their own making” – it’s because of

A) firms (such as a number of solicitors) making it financially attractive to have others make cold calls on the basis of the solicitors acting (for a hefty fee) on behalf of some of the public, and

B) fraudsters, making calls to con people, vulnerable or not, into handing over credit/debit card details, either because the caller is selling services or goods (which may or may not exist) or selling such things as timeshare holidays, etc, or simply scaring a recipient (the “you have a virus”, “your card details have been used”, etc)

Yes, it would be nice for the telecom services to provide Caller Display/Caller ID services for free, and given that “System X” features were introduced in the late 80s, it MIGHT be the case that the Government, OFCOM, and any other authorities could now demand an investigation as to whether the costs for the software have already been met and charging customers extra for these services is now unjustified, with the original ROI having now been more than covered (for all I know Openreach may have been paid 10 times over what the software cost was back in the 80s, and now the charges are simply profit out of customer misery).

PeterM says:
6 March 2014

On a Which? Technology podcast from around 12 months ago, there was a discussion of call monitoring and blocking (for those suffering nuisance calls).

Among the comments was one about having only one “base” unit and a number of cordless phones.

Just wanted to point out that from a safety point of view, it is worthwhile to ALWAYS have one older style CORDED phone plugged in too. Some do have the ability to silence any ringing. While many would consider it “old fashioned”, it should be remembered that these cordless phones depend on the base unit having a mains voltage supply, and therefore they will not work in a power cut.

I know many people have mobile phones, but there are some advantages in dialling 999 – for a start, even if the call gets disconnected, emergency services can determine the address from the caller’s landline number (whereas a mobile phone could be used from anywhere in the UK), so dialling 999 and saying you need the fire service (even if you then needed to evacuate the building) would get a response, but not if the fire had burned the mains cables and stopped your base unit working…