/ Health, Technology

More than a nuisance: the serious side of nuisance calls

Man on the street

You might think nuisance calls are just a passing annoyance. But, for many, unsolicited phone calls are more than just a nuisance. We’ve heard form vulnerable people who find these calls distressing and intimidating.

I want you to imagine that you’re at home on your own. Now, imagine that you’re worried about something, perhaps you’re unwell and you’re waiting for the hospital to call. Many have shared such stories here on Which? Conversation as part of our Calling Time on Nuisance Calls and Texts campaign.

There’s a serious side to nuisance calls that’s making life a lot harder for people. Here are just some of the thoughts you’ve shared.

‘At one point she refused to answer the phone at all’

Norie was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. This required him to sit by the phone waiting for calls from three different hospitals so that arrangements could be made for radiation therapy. I’ll leave it to Norie to tell you what happens next:

‘Can you imagine the distress caused, when nerves on edge, my wife and I would answer the phone to find some twit wittering on about PPI compensation, solar energy panels, loft insulation grants. I wish I’d kept a log, but was too distraught to do so at the time. The stress and untold harm that did to my body, whilst carrying the dreaded disease, is immeasurable.’

Norie is registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).

We also heard from Penny who told us about her 94-year-old mother. Every time the phone rings, Penny’s mother has to switch off the TV to get up to answer the phone. Not only is this physically difficult for her, when she does answer the phone she finds the calls intimidating:

‘These calls are often about computers or debt services. She finds this quite scary and at one point refused to answer the phone at all, which worried us as we did not know if she was unwell.

‘Now when we phone her we let the phone ring twice, put the phone down then call again. This alerts her to the fact that one of her family is trying to speak to her. But we should not have to do this.’

Penny’s mother is registered with the TPS.

‘These calls really are a harassment’

Which? Conversation has received so many of these stories. Keith’s wife was diagnosed with MS 28 years ago and, now 77, she’s confined to a wheelchair. When she’s alone in the house and she answers the phone to a silent caller, she becomes distressed:

‘All that effort which she often has to spend just getting from where she is to the telephone, only to find that there is no one to speak to.’

Again, this couple is registered with the TPS.

R. Thomas suffers from Parkinson’s disease and also has a respiratory disease requiring constant oxygen:

‘The problem is that, as I need and often receive calls pertaining to my care and activities, I just cannot ignore the phone when it “rings”.

‘They are nearly always calls re PPI or loan insurance. I can receive up to 15 to 20 calls a day. I really am fed up, surely there must be a way that these calls can be stopped or the perpetrators prosecuted because they really are a harassment. If only I was well enough I would be able to pursue the problem actively but I’m powerless. I support any action that you are able to take to effect and remove this blight on my time and health.’

So on behalf of everyone here and the many, many others who have told us that there is a much more serious side of nuisance calls, we’re listening.

[UPDATE 10/06/2013] – We’re now calling on the government to take action on nuisance calls and texts amid our latest research which reveals the scale of the problem.

We gave regulators 12 weeks to form a joint taskforce to stop unwanted calls and texts. Time’s up. While there has been some progress and coordinated action, there needs to be a new tougher approach, led by the government. You can help by pledging your support for our Calling Time on Nuisance Calls and Texts campaign here.


Many of us have posted comments about how we have wasted the time of those who make these calls. For most of us they are just a nuisance, cause frustration and waste time. I am very glad that Jenny is focusing on the serious aspect.

Unsolicited calls must be stopped, taking whatever action is needed to enforce this. Those who want to receive marketing calls OR PARTICIPATE IN MARKET RESEARCH should opt-in. We know that an opt-out system does not prevent marketing calls, even if it helps to decrease the number.

Joan Caffrey says:
20 June 2013

We have an unlisted phone number & registered with TPS but to no avail. Beware of hanging up on callers because I lost phone & internet by them leaving the line open & it took 2days & telephone engineers to help me. The whole point of trying to get a modicum of privacy seems to be a waste of time.Most callers have a foreign accent & are hard to understand . I have tried everything from polite rejection to downright rudeness but nothing seems to work. The powers that be are always bleating about human rights so what about ours with this constant nuisance

Totally agree. These firms have no social conscience and their activities should be criminalised. If these people were a terrorist threat, the government would have identified them and blocked their call centres long ago. It’s this inertia that is particularly frustrating. The evidence is there, but who will act upon it, and when?

I got a call the other day from someone telling me my sky box insurance had run out and would it be convenient to renew it. She sounded very sure of her facts, shame I knew she was lying as I’ve never had insurance for my sky box, so I told her a didn’t have sky. When she’d finally hung up, “but you have had sky before right”, er no etc etc. I google’d (other search engines are available) Sky box insurance and found a post on one of the Sky forums from a Sky employee stating they only use one company for their insurance and they’ll never ring you. So this was obviously another scam if ony to sell overpriced insurance. heavens knows what else they ‘d do with yoru details and of course they didn’t display a number. For a business, not displaying a valid/correct phone number should be made illegal. And numbers like 000000000000 are not valid.

And yes I’m registed with the TPS, for what little benefit it has.

A big problem is that too many of these nuisance calls emanate from overseas. Stopping them would be difficult because it requires the ability to differentiate between valid and nuisance calls. Added to which, many calls are made via the internet and, as mentioned in another thread on this forum, this makes it possible to make calls from overseas with what appears to be a UK ‘phone number.

Solution of the problem needs international action and I guess this will be difficult to achieve because call centres provide both employment and income for many countries. No doubt there are potential solutions that can be employed locally but it is unrealistic to expect these to be completely effective, at least in the short term.

I use a combination of caller display and answerphone as my first line of defence. If I don’t recognise a caller I don’t answer. If the caller really wants to talk to me they can leave a message. This seems to have worked to some extent. I used to get several calls a day from ‘International’ but these are now very rare, the callers appear to have got the message!

m.glaves says:
10 June 2013

Calls from ( India ? ) are very annoying….one from ‘Virgin’ first saying I could get a better deal ?? then asking for my password ? and then my date of birth ?? I then put the phone down!!!
i have also had repeated calls on my mobile phone ( from Virgin ? …
The other one is PPI ( I have never had any of any kind ) .
The most spooky one was a man with a voice change machine …. ( to cover his nationality perhaps ) . slam the phone down and press the hash key ## several times .. I am told that works .

Sludgeguts says:
9 June 2013

I registered with TPS many, many years ago – and it worked!
The number of nuisance calls dropped from many per day to maybe 1 per year – usually ‘Simon’ (with a bombay accent!).
To be honest, I did miss my daily dose of mischief.
But looking back, it’s hard to say when it all started again, but I’m up to three or four calls per day – PPI, lifestyle survey etc – but no-one sells double glazing or burglar alarms anymore 🙁
Rather than paying for caller display, we simply let the answerphone ‘field’ the call. If it’s someone we know, we pick up. Nuisance callers always put down the second they hear answer machine.

On the plus side, it does mean that I now get my dose of mischief. I try to keep these idiots dangling on the line as long as possible, wasting their time & money 😀 (and while I’m wasting their time, they can’t be off annoying other people (as in the article)

I believe telephone surveys are exempt from some of the rules but this needs stopping also.

I have been surveyed many times for which energy company I am with. When these stop Eon starts calling.
The strangest survey is asking what brand my TV is.

I tell them it is none of their business, I am not going to tell them or get silly at times, but it doesn’t matter how many times you refuse to tell them they still keep calling.

Surveys are just a way to get around the rules.

Had a call a couple of days ago. The guy said he had a file in front of him with the details of my accident. Wouldn’t tell me the details and put the phone down on me after I got shirty.

Blatant lie as the only accident I have had was a no-fault knock over 20 years ago!!

This sort of behaviour must be quite frightening to some people as they sound so convincing especially when they know your name.

I only answer calls to my landline if I’m sitting by the phone, but when I do answer, I’m not nasty to the poor people who make these calls, although I don’t waste my time listening to them for long.

The people who make the money don’t make the calls.

It’s a horrible badly paid job. People shout and swear at you all day and you wouldn’t do it you weren’t desperate for work. I know – I did it myself many years ago when I really needed the money.

I’m half with you on this, Flower. I also used to work in a call centre for a market research company when I was 16. A lot of my friends and people from my school worked there for a bit of extra cash, so I’m always probably more sympathetic than I should be when I get these calls.
However, I have to say that when I worked for them there was a very strict zero-tolerance policy on calling anyone who was TPS registered, being in any way pushy and certainly around being abusive to customers. The company never passed on any details to third parties, and prior consent had been gained from all customers contacted via their service providers for us to contact them. We were still shouted and and told to go away, which is fair enough, but I believe that if all call-centres functioned on these basic principles life would be a lot easier for consumers.
No matter how much sympathy I have for the people making a pittance on the other end of the phone, I have absolutely no patience or respect for those companies who allow their staff to harass and abuse consumers who have not agreed to speak with them, as per the experience my Dad had during such a phone call, detailed below.

Breaking the law just cos you’re hard up isn’t really a valid life choice.

The punishment for companies and staff need to be severe enough that they choice not to break any laws in pursuit of a living wage.

What’s to stop a company setting up and paying burglars to rob people ( I don’t see any difference between that and many phone pests), and using the excuse its ok I’m being paid to do this, its my job I’m hard up I need the money.

Luckily my daughter hasn’t worked in a call centre but she did do 2 weeks chugging which is almost as bad 🙁 ( Glad to say she got fired, wasn’t getting enough people to sign up )

Actually, I think if an employer requires you to break the law during your employment you have the right to refuse to do so, and if you are then sacked for this refusal, you can take your employer to an employment tribunal. Employees who are regularly being pressurised into breaking the law ought to stand up for themselves more, although I realise with the current extreme scarcity of jobs, that is easier said than done.

Ian says:
22 June 2013

That probably doesn’t apply if you are working in a call centre in India.

Anthony Fox says:
10 June 2013

BT can block all nuisance calls NOW. The technology is already in use. When you dial 1471 you are told the number of the most recent caller. If this number is with-held for any reason, you are told “You were called today at..(time)……… We do not have the caller’s number” or “The caller with-held their number”. This proves that the BT system can distinguish such calls automatically. All it requires is for BT to BLOCK all such calls. Job done. Since BT can distinguish the two types of calls, it should be possible for a subscriber to sign a form to allow them to receive such calls if they wish. That is, the system should require subscribers to “opt in”. If they do not opt in then they cannot and will not receive cold calls and/or calls from withheld numbers. I am sure that so very few people would opt in that the whole system of unwanted calls would cease totally within weeks.

Yes BT can block calls, however, you need to pay them a monthly fee for that privilege. Some of think that that is wrong.

Anthony Fox says:
10 June 2013

In that case, it is this charging by BT which should be stopped. We should all be entitled by law to freedom from these sort of calls unless we want them. BT is clearly making money from the “Nuisance Callers” and it is therefore in BT’s financial interest to connect these calls even if the subscriber doesn’t want them. This attitude needs to be changed, from the top. Are you reading this, Mr.Cameron?

I sent his twitter account a tweet a few months ago about nuisance calls, I’m still waiting for some action

As Anthony Fox pointed out, BT already know what type of call is being made.

They could do their part by preventing all calls that have number witheld getting anywhere. A message to the caller saying “This call will not reach it’s destination as your number is witheld” would do the trick.

actually it’s not that easy. If you are called from a perfectly legitimate company via their switchboard, i.e someone in a large office with an extension to the “desk” number, then you won’t be able to “identify” the caller. My husband and son work in such an organisation, and I can’t not answer the phone if the caller isn’t displayed as it could be them. And some companies frown on the use of personal mobiles in work hours. So the technology needs to be a lot more sophisticated than it currently appears to be.

Companies can use their switchboard number as their caller id.

@lorna, What alfa says is true. A company can get their number forwarded so that’s what you see when they call. I personally don’t understand why a legit company would need to alienate its staff or customers by not having a return number displayed. Always makes me think they’e not that legit or they’re trying to hide something if they do choose to hide it.

There is clearly a gap in the market for a telecoms company to offer a different form of residential telephone service with three basic plans : [a] you can receive and make calls to and from anywhere without restriction, [b] you can receive calls only from numbers you have programmed in but you can make calls to anywhere, and [c] you can only make calls. There could be a further variation on [b] and [c] to allow you to receive calls from numbers you have previously called.

Hello all, thanks for your comments. We’re now calling on the government to take action on nuisance calls and texts amid our latest research which reveals the scale of the problem: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2013/06/government-must-tackle-nuisance-calls-and-texts-322002/

We gave regulators 12 weeks to form a joint taskforce to stop unwanted calls and texts. Time’s up. While there has been some progress and coordinated action, there needs to be a new tougher approach, led by the government. You can help by pledging your support for our Calling Time on Nuisance Calls and Texts campaign here: http://www.which.co.uk/campaigns/nuisance-calls-and-texts/

Sorry to keep saying this, but can Which? not get some publicity on BBC TV?

I cannot think of anything we have discussed that has more support than the nuisance calls issue, and getting Which? on TV regularly could help boost membership.

Good idea. Watchdog would be a start.

Hi Wavechange, we were on BBC Breakfast today 🙂

We also had a long summit on BBC Radio 5 Live. During this, John Whittingdale MP said that there’ll be a special select committee meeting on nuisance calls.

And there’s all this coverage too this morning: https://www.google.com/news?ncl=dJH5rP500CgLY9MVzykkkuWHu6mVM&q=nuisance+calls&lr=English&hl=en

Excellent. I wish I had known because BBC Breakfast is not available on iPlayer, as I learned recently when I missed some coverage related to one of my leisure interests.

Please can you let us know in advance next time.

Sorry Wavechange, lots going on this morning. You might be able to catch us on Sky News during the day.

Thanks. I’m watching.

Funkyhousedave says:
10 June 2013

My wife suffered from constant nuisance calls during the day despite being on the call preference service. Bought a CPR All-in-One Call Blocker for a one off charge of £39.99 from Amazon. Took a little configuring but does the trick perfectly. Not had an unwanted call for a month. Just call it from my mobile every now and again to check the phone line is still working! Problem solved as you could theoretically stop all calls but one allowed number if you were so inclined. Takes 30 seconds to fit.

From today’s Times:
“Homes signed up with the Telephone Preference Service receive double the number of nuisance phone calls than those who have not registered, research has found.

“The TPS is a free service that is supposed to block unsolicited telemarketing calls.

“But, a survey by Which?, the consumer group, found that those registered with the service received on average 10 unsolicited calls in the last month compared with the average five for those not signed up. Six in 10 TPS users (57 per cent) said they are not satisfied with the service.”

This may be because people are more likely to sign-up to TPS if they receive numerous nuisance calls. Alternatively, as someone suggested in one of the Conversations, unscrupulous organisations could use the TPS list to target individuals.

It would be good to know whether or not those registered with TPS are being targeted. I can imagine that anyone trying to sell call blocking devices might be tempted to do this.

This is what we say in our news story about that very subject: ‘This is hardly surprising, as we found that people registered with the TPS still received, on average, 10 unsolicited calls in the last month – compared to five calls, on average, received by those not signed up.

‘This isn’t to say that signing up to the TPS means you’ll get more nuisance calls. More than half of those registered on the TPS told us they felt they were receiving fewer calls than they did prior to signing up.

‘Instead, TPS members typically sign up because they get so many calls, and it’s likely the TPS reduces them to a more ‘reasonable’ level.’ http://www.which.co.uk/news/2013/06/government-must-tackle-nuisance-calls-and-texts-322002/

FYI I’ve removed the italics from your comment, as it’s making everything on our homepage go into italics as well. Sorry.

Sorry about the italics, Patrick. I thought the bug was affecting just my computer. I think this happened after the major upgrade earlier this year.

I saw quite a long piece on Sky News, thanks.

Yes, it’s a bug after our upgrade. Sorry about that. Glad you saw it!

You can playback our BBC Radio 5 Live summit now: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02lzp35/clips

My Dad had a call the other day in reference to ‘an accident he recently had’, and a potential payout waiting for him. He told them he hadn’t had any car accidents in the last 20 years, nor made any claims. The man on the other end of the line then called him something I couldn’t repeat here and slammed the phone down on him! Luckily my Dad saw the funny side but I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be really distressed by this – it’s really, really not OK.

I wonder how many of the nuisance calls result from people having unwittingly agreed to them? It is all too easy when filling out forms to miss the bit that asks if the person is willing to accept calls from other organisations. This bit is usually phrased in a negative form, ie the person filling in the form has to tick a box to opt out. It would be very much better if it was the other way round so the box has to be ticked to opt in. If no tick is provided then it should be made illegal for such information as telephone numbers and email addresses to be used for any purpose other than that for which they have been provided.

Some years ago I used to get regular calls from organisations selling such things as double glazing. I signed up to the TPS and I have to say that these calls did cease, so the TPS system can work. Most calls of this type now are from ‘International’, ‘Withheld’, ‘Unavailable’ or weird numbers so outside the TPS’s authority. What I do with them depends on my feelings at the time. Sometimes I lift the receiver and put it down for a few minutes and then ring off, on other occasions I do answer and ask the caller a lot of questions until he gets fed up but mostly I let the call get fielded by the answer ‘phone.

By the way, I did see the bit on BBC Breakfast this morning. I thought it went down quite well and got the message across.

Sometimes you have to tick them, sometimes you don’t. But you do have to read the statement very carefully to make sure you are opted out as they are written in a such a way to confuse you.

Nuisance callers often say that you have opted in for such communications.

Another excuse is that you have entered a competition and by entering the competition agreed to cold calls. They can never tell you what the competition was though.

Part of the problem is that many companies still do not screen their marketing data against the TPS and CTPS prior to calling and many more companies are still not aware of the TPS. It’s an ongoing challenge.

The ICO needs to start enforcing those that breach the legislation more and then perhaps companies WILL think before they dial!

[This comment has been edited. Please do not advertise on Which? Conversation. Thanks, mods.]

And isn’t that because in order to get a list from the TPS the company has to had over a sizeable fee, when compared to any fine they may or more likely not get.

Seems a bizarre business model really. You want people to do something so make them pay in order to do it.

Give the lists out for free, and up the fines considerably for those not using them (the ICO seems to have a warped sense of what a large fine is, they all seem very small to me) and use that money to fund whatever it is you’re perceived not to be doing.

Keith says:
10 June 2013

I should be possible to bar receiving calls from Withheld Numbers without having to pay the Telecom companies a fee for this

Ms White says:
10 June 2013

My landline number is ex-directory and registered with the TPS. I live in a building divided into flats and for 5 months I had at least 3 calls a day from a Banks credit card collection number asking to speak to a neighbour. The only way to stop this was to change my number. Please note i did complain to the Bank and eventually received compensation.
This sort of behaviour by Banks does not seem to be acknowledged by anybody and it must be illegal.

wev says:
12 June 2013

For 5 months, that probably is harassment. You could have asked your local police station or Citizens Advice Bureau for help, and told BBC Watchdog as well.

Ms White says:
12 June 2013

I have informed my local trading standards, BBC Watchdog, BBC Moneybox, The Guardian money page, a debt charity, a local journalist, my MP and Which? I have had no response from anybody. I do now have letters from the Bank (it was Santander) admitting that I was subjected to calls asking for my neighbour. I really don’t think anybody believes me..

What really bothers me is that this could happen to someone who is for some reason more vulnerable than I am.

wev says:
12 June 2013

Yes, it could easily happen to anyone. Look at the thinkjessica.com website to see how bad mail problems can get.

Did you ever ask your solicitor to intervene by sending a Cease and Desist letter to the bank?

Ms White says:
12 June 2013

I went through Santander’s complaints procedure …. was promised in writing that the calls would stop but they didn’t and I did get a small amount of compensation and a grovelling apology from Santander for the continuation of the calls. I also changed my phone number.

Will look at that website.

Whilst it’s good to see TPS and CTPS screening in the news this week, it’s amazing how many companies don’t screen their data against the TPS before calling, texting or voice broadcasting.

Despite our best efforts, companies still think we’re trying to catch them out when we ask them who deals with their TPS Screening.

[Please do not advertise your own business on Which? Conversation. Thanks, mods.]