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Making a noise about silent phone calls

Phone off the hook

Ofcom today announced an action plan to tackle nuisance phone calls, and specifically silent or abandoned calls. Do you often pick up the phone to phantom, silent callers?

Nuisance calls – it’s an issue hundreds of you have told us is a problem, and we’re busily working behind-the-scenes on the issue. For example, last year we wrote to Ofcom, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the body that runs the Telephone Preference Service, to step up efforts to stop nuisance calls.

Ofcom’s research has shown that during a six-month period in 2012, 47% of all adults received a silent call on their landline. That’s up from just 24% in 2011! We’ve chatted a lot about nuisance marketing and scam calls here on Which? Convo, but we’ve been a bit silent on the issue of abandoned or silent calls. And they can definitely be annoying, if not unsettling if you get lots of them.

Silent calls are usually down to call centres using automated dialling equipment, which generate more calls than they have staff to deal with. So, if you pick up before a call centre operator is available to actually take the call, all you’ll hear on the end of the line is cold, hard silence.

Ofcom’s plan to tackle silent and abandoned calls

Ofcom’s action plan suggests commissioning new research to understand the frequency of nuisance calls; working with the industry to track down companies behind nuisance calls; and ongoing enforcement action with fines of up to £2m.

According to Ofcom’s rules, no more than 3% of a company’s calls in one day can be abandoned. To that effect, Ofcom ruled in 2012 that the number of abandoned calls made by HomeServe exceeded an acceptable call rate limit and issued the company with a fine of £750,000. Npower was also fined £60,000 by Ofcom for abandoning too many calls, and TalkTalk is still under investigation.

However, Ofcom’s main responsibility in this area is to tackle silent and abandoned calls. Ofcom doesn’t have the power to take enforcement action against companies making marketing calls – this is the ICO’s role. There’s definitely good reason to tackle the bigger picture, as 71% of landline customers said they received a live marketing call in the same six-month period that 47% said they had received a silent call.

So, although today’s announcement is a welcome initiative by Ofcom for silent calls, we want to hear something similar from the ICO.

I’ve personally never received a silent call, but I imagine it must be quite frightening to get one, especially if you’re home alone. Have you ever answered the phone to find silence on the other end of the line?

Have you ever suffered from silent phone calls?

Yes (95%, 2,008 Votes)

No (5%, 96 Votes)

Total Voters: 2,115

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Was getting loads of silent calls from Virgin Media. I am a Virgin Media customer already so called up and gave the poor girl at the end of the phone earache. The calls have now stopped.

Geoff says:
11 January 2013

I’m 86 and I don’t go out much. Our BT telephones have Caller Display so before I pick up the receiver I check to see whether it shows a known name or International or Withheld. If the latter, I let it ring a few times otherwise the line is dead. I don’t announce our phone number. I just say ‘Hello’. When the caller starts to talk I wait to hear what they are selling. My favourite is the person trying to interest me in grants for insulation. I say, ‘Before you go any further, let me tell you that we had cavity wall insulation installed by ICI in 1976. That’s probably before you were born. And we have more loft insulation than you can imagine. Goodbye.’

Occasionally, a Withheld number can be important. We have had Withheld messages from government departments. They should reveal their identity to avoid people ignoring their messages.

It should be totally illegal for companies to make calls with their own phone number with-held!!
If the call has no way of identifying the caller then there is no way to make a complaint about the company!!
The type of call I most commonly get rings, possibly only twice or three time rings, then cuts off. If you do manage to get there before it cuts off then the phone is obviously ‘live’ but no-one speaks and the call is terminated 3 to 5 seconds later. If you then do ‘1471’ you get “You were called at —-. We do not have the callers number.”
I did markedly reduce the number of calls – on one occasion when the phone was obviously ‘live’ I blew a strong blast from a dog whistle down the mouthpiece!
On the very odd occasion when someone actually spoke I asked for “Your full name, the name of your Company and the phone number.”
I was asked why I wanted the information and I replied “Since you have made an unsolicited call to this number, which is Registered with the Telephone Preference Service, you have broken UK Law and the authorities will want the information so that they can contact you.”
Funnily enough they immediately rang off, without giving the info and, so far, have not rung again.
Incidentally, our phone is programmed to not accept calls without the callers number, so those that get through are either from abroad or from a non-BT network.

Mike the bellringer says:
11 January 2013

My “dodgy” landline provider is BT and my brother-in-law’s Canadian number was not displayed last time he called. Of course his own phone could be using an id blocking device just as we can set up using 141 etc in the UK.
It used to be the case that where calls were made from an extension line routed through a company’s computerised exchange, the number did not display. I presume this was for technical reasons rather anything more Machiavellian. Whether this is still so, I don’t know.

Mike the bellringer wrote:
>… my brother-in-law’s Canadian number was not displayed last time he called.
>Of course his own phone could be using an id blocking device
>just as we can set up using 141 etc in the UK.

It’s partly a terminology issue.
* ‘Withheld’ = the user has chosen to hide the number
* ‘International’ = the number is from another country
* ‘Available’ = the network knows the number and can show it
* ‘Unavailable’ = the network doesn’t know the number

In your earlier comment, you used the term ‘Unavailable’. That makes perfect sense in plain english i.e. the number wasn’t available to you, but it seemed unlikely to be in the telecom technical category called ‘Unavailable’. We can rule out ‘Available’ because you didn’t see the number. It could be ‘Withheld’, as you suggest, but I suspect it’s been designated ‘International’ by BT. There’s no technical reason or regulation why calls from Canada, USA, or Europe, should show as ‘International’, it’s just a BT business decision. The mobile phone networks frequently show international numbers.

In summary, if it is ‘International’ or ‘Withheld’, then you will be able to block ‘Unavailable’ calls to filter out nuisance calls without blocking your brother.

Mike the bellringer wrote:
>It used to be the case that where calls were made from an extension line routed through
>a company’s computerised exchange, the number did not display. I presume this was
>for technical reasons rather anything more Machiavellian.

It’s a well-known and well-discussed issue in telecoms. See my reply to wavechange above. The key phrase is ‘presentation number’.

Sandra says:
11 January 2013

In my earlier post I said my Doctors surgery calls are withheld. I don’t use their expensive 084 number and its only the Doctor that ever rings me. When my husband was in hospital for 9 weeks it was a nightmare finding a withheld on my phone. Totally unacceptable.

@Sandra, According to https://conversation.which.co.uk/money/gps-using-expensive-0844-phone-numbers/

doctors should have stopped using 084 numbers a few years ago.

Alan says:
11 January 2013

We are in our late 70’s and are very annoyed by nuisance telephone calls. As an example, we had an anonymous call at 03.00 completely disturbing our sleep. I processed a complaint and after several months had a message to say that neither OFCOM or the ICO can take any action. So why do they exist? We have been registered with TPS for many years but the nuisance calls keep increasing! I think that TPS, OFCOM and the ICO should be ceased immediately and BT made responsible for any nuisance call. They surely have the technology to stop these calls. If the calls do not stop soon we shall change provider and possibly just use a secure mobile phone. Just making it illegal for any company or person to call without giving their number would be a help, and we all need the help!

BT don’t run the entirety of the phone system. There are dozens of landline and multiple mobile providers.

Alan R says:
12 January 2013

This started off as a complaint about “silent” calls. Companies are allowed to make 3% “silent” calls. Why are they allowed to make any calls that they cannot complete immediately the ‘phone is answered?

As many others are saying, why should calls be allowed to be made without the callers proper number being shown?

Two simple matters that would cut the problem significantly. It seems too difficult for the powers that be to do what the majority of the population want!

Steve Morgan says:
12 January 2013

“Companies are allowed to make 3% “silent” calls. Why are they allowed to make any calls that they cannot complete immediately the ‘phone is answered?”

The calls are made automatically using something called a predictive dialer. The dialer is supposed to predict when someone at the calling end will be available to handle the call that it is placing. When you answer the call, it is immediately patched through to an available operator. The problem is that, as with all predictions, it may be wrong and there may not be an operator available when you pick up. Hence, the silence.

Regulations allow a certain percentage of calls to be silent, because it is recognised that such a system is imperfect and this is likely to happen. 3% is too high, however; it should be no higher than 1%, in my opinion.

As recipients, we can help. If, on answering an unsolicited call, we all shout “Oh, do f* off!” and slam the phone down, the operators will have far more time on their hands to handle the ones that would otherwise be silent.

Alternatively, we could all try keeping the operators on the phone for ages, sending the percentage of silent calls up over the 3% threshold, hopefully leading to the companies being fined 🙂

They must be pretty poorly programmed and tested then. Answering the phone and saying nothing doesn’t seem to trigger the transfer to an operator.

Yet automated sales type calls, if the let the phone ring 5 times you’ve missed about 5 secs of the message as they seem to start playing it as soon as the dialling process has ended regardless of whether the phone is still ringing or not.

Steve Morgan says:
12 January 2013

I think you misunderstand, William. The problem is that the dialer predicts when there will be an operator available to take another call. Because it can’t predict it accurately (because it doesn’t know how long all of the current conversations are going to take, or who needs to go to the toilet, for example), it sometimes gets it wrong. It would transfer the call to an operator, if there was an operator that wasn’t talking to somebody else. That’s not poor programming or testing; it’s imperfect prediction, combined with the fact that companies try to sweat the last second of talk-time out of their call centre staff.


3% is far too high, which probably explains all the problems we are getting.

Let’s make a few reasonable assumptions about a ‘cold’ calling centre with 100 operators. Each makes 10 calls per hour (probably quite low as most will be eff off replies) in an 8-hour day. That’s 10*8*100=8,000 calls per day. 3% of that total is 266 permitted silent calls per day. Over a 45 week year that’s 54,000 silent calls from one calling centre.

Is it any wonder that so many are getting hit with silent calls? This should be banned immediately. It is perfectly simple to change the programming so that a SINGLE new call is initiated as soon as an available operator ends a call. Just because the recipient is not home and they have to wait for so many rings before ending the attempted call is tough on the call centre. It will dramatically increase the overheads of the call centre but why should we suffer?

What they actually do it to call several numbers simultaneously (more than free operators) and as calls are answered they are put through to the each operator in turn. The other calls continue to ring and if there’s no operator available to answer, they become the problem silent calls. The number of simultaneous calls initiated depends on the number of operators that are indicated as free at any point in time.

The algorithm they use makes sure that there are sufficient calls being initiated at any time to avoid having idle operators. It’s a dynamic algorithm that responds to the number of operators on duty and the realtime average call time, so there are always calls being initiated and thus there are ALWAYS silent calls in progress.

It’s just totally unacceptable and again proves to us that OFCOM is totally useless and out of touch with telecoms.

Steve Morgan says:
13 January 2013


I completely agree that it’s unacceptable from our perspective, as the recipients of such calls; just like it’s unacceptable for us to endure these unsolicited calls at all.

I suppose part of Ofcom’s problem is that, for all the bitching and whining that the general public does, the harder they clamp down on the perpetrators, the more bitching and whining they’ll get from the industry. They’d claim that Ofcom were making it impossible to do business in the UK and then sod off to the sub-continent where they wouldn’t be regulated at all.

And I bet, in general, the public rolls over and takes it, whereas the industry would be up in arms.

I don’t think we’re ever going to see regulation against the use of predictive dialers; that ship sailed long ago. They should never have been legal in the first place. The best we could expect is to see the maximum percentage of silent calls reduced a bit.

But more importantly, Ofcom need to use the powers that they have to actively penalise the companies that break the rules; not just the odd ‘landmark’ case, but as a matter of course.

John Harris says:
14 January 2013

I too frequently receive these calls, sometimes several in a week. I also receive many cold and scam calls. I am registered with the Telephone preference service, but it only seems to have a limited effect.

sandy says:
14 January 2013

feed up with silent/nuisance calls is an under statement. i’ve got a phone that i can bar numbers but unfortunately not “out of area” or “international” so i just don’t answer them now.

Matt Petre says:
15 January 2013

I now get at least two silent calls per week. I hate it and feel powerless.

Matt Petre says:
15 January 2013

To back up my posting I am sorry to say that not only do we receive these silent calls but
also calls from people mostly with an Asian dialect claiming to be called Sara or John.They tell me of
PPI claims i could make.A waste of time and never followed up.

i assume that bt make a lot of money from these nuisance calls,either if you have them or dont-£94 a year to avoid some is disgusting.with everything in the business world the only way to hurt them is financial-i can guarantee that if it cost a company more money to upset a person,whether a customer of theirs or not,for instance if for every call they made they generated on average say£5,if they were charged £6,the calls would stop overnight!this would also stop all poor servive from any company,if it cost them more than they could make by anti customer ,and abhorrent anti consumer behaviour.

Sandra says:
25 January 2013

Although I belong to the TPS it doesn’t seem to work! Twice in under a week I have had two unsolicited calls from a company called Money Savers. The first caller hung up on me, so rude! However the second was very apologetic and said she would remove my number from their data base. At least I have their number so I can ignore it if they ring again!

We have recently received approx. 4 silent calls per day, sometimes ringing long enough for the answerphone to kick in, other times hanging up before it kicks in. As this often occurs between 5 and 8pm, we do not answer the phone but wait for ‘friends’ to speak, then pick their calls up. They are used to it now. Calls that appear as ‘Unknown’ or ‘Private’ number may be from extensions on an exchange where the settings are for the number not to be displayed. Another point – why are companies allowed to buy phone lists? One thing is certain, our Private numbers are not!!

Muriel Wilkins says:
14 June 2013

Phone rang this morning when I was hanging clothes on the line in the garden. Was expecting a call from the Doctor as my husband was ill and we had to call an ambulance in the night. I rushed indoors, to the phone, only to be met with silence.
Both my husband and I are over eighty, and he is not well.
We do not need and cannot cope with an incident such as this. The phone should be free of these calls to be available for important calls- ie. medical.

Martyn Williams says:
2 July 2013

I have today and yesterday asked my telephone provider for help in stopping these irritating landline phone calls form UNAVAILABLE numbers I have caller display, but none the less it is still extremely irritating, they say that they are unable to help (PLUSNET) I am also registered with TPS, but these calls are still getting through, in this day and age of digital communications, there must be a way of stopping these annoying, irritating nuisance calls from being received to any given landline on request from the customer. I am sick and tired of no one being able to help or willing to help, may be the service provider is getting paid to allow these calls

silent calls started again this morning (Saturday at 9 00 am and have continued throughout the whole day so far every half hour or so- four by 11.15 am- still going on and driving me (flu ridden and ill() insane- if I could reach these nuisance callers I would probably kill them- they are killing me and I am totally fed up with having a landline that receives not only these calls but regular calls from call centres world wide even though I joined TPS etc.. and never give my number out unless desperate.
Fine them, find them and fine them and charge them billions of pounds for nuisance please. I am fed up with being told by the none silent kind that I am owed PPI or that my computer is sending out messages of error that only someone who does not speak my language can solve!!! please please get these beggars off the line, and stop the surveys from far away places asking me what charity I support- NONE damn them- because of their calls-

James says:
20 February 2015

For the last 2 days we’ve been getting calls every hour during the day. When we pick up the call clicks off, as if someone just ended the call. if we leave the phone ringing it stops when the answer service cuts in. I do 1471 and it says the caller withheld their number.

mary says:
7 March 2015

I get that too. I just hang up and they seem to stop. Unless it is people talking, it is probably a call centre In another country.

markon says:
23 April 2015

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