UK

Nuisance calls: Crackdown planned

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Image caption A public consultation will ask if firms which break rules should face fines of up to 20% of their annual turnover

The government is planning to make it easier to fine firms that hound members of the public with nuisance calls.

Currently, they can be punished only if unsolicited calls cause "substantial damage" to householders.

Ministers will also consult on imposing heftier fines. Some consumer groups say the measures do not go far enough.

The Information Commissioner's Office received 120,310 complaints about "unsolicited marketing calls" from April-November 2013.

Overseas calls

It is illegal for companies to call domestic numbers registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).

The rules do not apply when people consent to their details being used for marketing purposes.

But BBC business correspondent Joe Lynam said members of the public continued to get unwanted calls - often pre-recorded - despite being registered with the TPS.

That was because not all companies were members of the Direct Marketing Association - the UK telemarketing industry body - some were overseas and some were "good old-fashioned fraudsters" out to steal money, he said.

The problem of unwanted calls may never be fully eradicated, he added.

Repeat offenders include firms inquiring about mis-sold payment protection insurance.

Silent calls

Firms which flout the TPS rules can currently be fined up to £500,000 by the Information Commissioner's Office.

Those which break media regulator Ofcom rules on silent and abandoned calls face fines of up to £2m.

Critics say the system is not working because rules on enforcement are skewed in favour of rogue firms.

Under Culture Secretary Maria Miller's plans, the current "substantial damage" threshold could be lowered.

They would also make it simpler for regulators such as Ofcom, the Insolvency Service and the Information Commissioner's Office to swap data about who the offenders might be.

And the Ministry of Justice will launch a consultation on Monday on whether firms that break the rules should face fines of up to 20% of their annual turnover.

'Unwanted intrusion'

"Nuisance calls must stop," Ms Miller said.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Many calls are made by overseas firms acting for domestic companies

"At best they are an irritation and an unwanted intrusion; at worst they cause real distress and fear, particularly to the elderly or housebound.

"People need to feel safe and secure in their homes.

"The rules are clear - people have the right to choose not to receive unsolicited marketing calls. We will work to ensure their choice is respected."

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd welcomed the plans saying he hoped regulators would now be given "the tools to get rid of the unwanted calls that millions of us are getting bombarded with".

"But we've got to be honest about this - some of this is firms that are operating overseas," he told BBC Radio 5 live.

"The companies in Britain that benefit from those calls have to be held to account for that.

"But it's not going to be possible to turn this off overnight."

'Long battle'

Mr Lloyd, who said a thousand complaints a week were made to Which? about nuisance callers, urged more people to register their phone number with the Telephone Preference Service.

"But it's going to be a long battle to keep these rogue companies - that really don't care about the rules - to get them under control and stop these nuisance calls and texts."

Mike Lordan, chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association, said it was unacceptable for people to receive unsolicited phone calls at home if they were registered on the TPS and hadn't given their consent for someone to call them.

He told 5 live the regulations on calls generally covered those made from overseas.

"It affects companies that operate in the UK and, if they use overseas call centres to make calls, the law still applies to them.

"And most of these calls that are being made - these rogue calls - are being made on behalf of companies that are registered in the UK."

He said he regretted "some of the image" associated with his industry but added: "I'd like to stress that it's not our business.

"Our code of practice is very strict."

He said the industry employed a million people, "many of those in areas of fairly high unemployment and we want to drive these rogue companies out of this particular field of business".

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Media captionAnita White says nuisance calls made her phone "an item of torture"

'Tough action'

Under the new rules, claims management companies (CMCs) could also face punishment if they buy leads generated by other firms which bombard customers with unwanted cold calls.

CMCs advertise widely on TV, in newspapers and on the internet, encouraging people to sue for personal injury compensation and for other losses.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "The Claims Management Regulator already takes tough action against companies which break the rules, suspending and closing down rogue firms, but now these fines will give us an extra weapon to drive bad behaviour out of the industry."

In December, the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee said watchdogs should use their powers more often to punish misuse of phone networks and contact information.

It found that a significant cause of nuisance calls was the unfair or even illegal use of personal data.

This included obtaining a person's "consent" to receive unsolicited marketing calls in ways that were "at best opaque and at worst dishonest" and trading personal details with companies which were "lacking in scruples".

The Fair Telecoms campaign group said the plans did not go far enough in dealing with the distress caused by constant nuisance calls.

"Stop mucking about with arguments about what is and what isn't consent and stop giving all the power to these half-baked regulators," the group's David Hickson said.

In April 2013, telecoms operator TalkTalk was fined £750,000 by Ofcom for making an excessive number of abandoned and silent calls during a telemarketing campaign to attract new subscribers.

TalkTalk said it had terminated its relationship with two call centres used when the problem was discovered.

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