Nuisance calls: Which? says company bosses should be liable

Annoyed woman on the phone Image copyright Thinkstock

Company bosses should be held personally responsible for nuisance calls, the consumer group Which? says.

A law change last year made it easier to prosecute firms that ignore rules on cold-calling people - but only four of the 22 fines issued have been paid.

The group suggested some bosses were closing businesses only to open new ones as a way of escaping penalties.

The government said it was looking at how further to strengthen the Information Commissioner's powers.

The commissioner's office (ICO) said it had issued £1.5m of fines so far in 2016 - up from £300,000 in 2014 - after the change to the law made it easier to penalise firms.

The ICO now only has to demonstrate calls and messages are a "nuisance" rather than the cause of "serious damage and distress". Firms must also display their number when calling or face being fined up to £500,000.

But Which? said making further changes to the law so individual directors could be held to account would help to bring "rogues" to justice.

"Millions of people are still being pestered by nuisance calls and it's time for tougher action that holds company directors personally accountable for the unlawful actions of their companies," Alex Neill, director of campaigns and policy for Which?, said.

'Custodial sentences'

The ICO confirmed that just four of the 22 fines levied against firms since the law changed in April 2015 had been paid in full, with two partly paid.

In the remaining cases, the fines had not been paid at all or the firms had gone into liquidation, it said.

Which? suggested some companies were using this tactic as a way of escaping penalties.

Mike Lordan, from the Direct Marketing Association which represents companies who want to contact consumers directly, said there should be stiffer penalties for those behind firms behaving in this way - with company directors being made personally liable.

"We would like to see custodial sentences brought in when these companies that are fined then go into liquidation," he told the BBC.

'Breaking the rules'

Last year, one claims management company in south Wales made 40 million nuisance calls about PPI claims, and had its licence suspended.

Andy Curry, head of the ICO team investigating nuisance calls and texts, said the problem tended to be "small marketing companies that pay little heed to the rules".

"Setting up an operation that can make millions of calls is unfortunately surprisingly easy, with little outlay required on equipment, premises or staff. It can literally be a cottage industry, and as these companies are typically limited companies, directors can be quick to look to liquidation as a way out of paying fines.

"The UK does have a strong insolvency regime and the ICO is committed to pursuing money owed on behalf of taxpayers and those millions of people who have been bothered by unwanted calls.

"Unpaid fines mark a frustrating end to our investigations, but it's worth noting that when nuisance call companies go out of business, they stop making calls - and that's a successful outcome."

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: "The government is exploring measures to strengthen the powers of the Information Commissioner.

"This includes, among other things, holding to account board-level executives who fail to comply with rules and guidance."

How do you prevent nuisance calls?

Image copyright Thinkstock
  • People with a landline can help to prevent cold calls by registering with the Telephone Preference Service for free
  • Mobile phone users can also register for free with the TPS and block nuisance calls by texting "TPS" and their email address to 85095 - an alternative text service exists, 78070, but this charges at your standard network rate
  • It should stop many nuisance calls, although it will not block nuisance texts
  • It is a legal requirement that all organisations, including charities, voluntary organisations and political parties, do not make such calls to numbers registered on the TPS unless they have the phone owner's consent
  • However, the TPS says registration with its service does not stop all unwanted calls, as its remit only covers live and unsolicited direct marketing calls - so, for example, it will not prevent recorded or automated messages, silent calls, market research or overseas companies
  • Be careful who you give your contact details to. When you buy something, enter a competition, or use a price comparison website, make sure to look carefully at the marketing "opt-in" or "opt-out" boxes to make sure you are not agreeing to be contacted
  • Currently 85% of UK landlines are registered for the TPS, but only 3% of mobiles have been signed up
  • Customers can report nuisance calls or find more information about who to complain to from Ofcom
  • Malicious, abusive or threatening calls, from people you know or from strangers, are a criminal offence and should be reported to your phone provider and the police

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