Government wage war on nuisance callers

telephone call old lady©iStock.com/RapidEye

THE Government are introducing new measures that will see company directors fined up to £500,000, all as part of a bid to clamp down on the millions of nuisance calls the UK public receive every year.

simon chandler
By Simon Chandler

From "Spring 2017", these measures will make directors personally liable for the nuisance calls their companies make to millions of people, thereby closing a loophole that enabled guilty firms to evade penalties by declaring bankruptcy.

The Government hope this will significantly reduce the annoyance and occasional distress caused by persistent unwanted calls, which can sometimes leave the elderly feeling vulnerable in their own homes.

However, while the new powers will curb nuisance calls originating from UK companies, it's likely that they'll do very little to halt calls that come from firms based overseas.

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That said, these powers are a considerable step forward in the fight to cut down on junk calls, which are regarded as the most annoying element of modern life by 77% of the UK population.

Being granted to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), they'll be added to pre-existing powers which enable the Office to hit companies responsible for nuisance calls with fines of up to £500,000.

They'll also be added to a law from April which makes it a legal obligation for marketing companies to display their numbers when cold-calling people, even when their call centres are based abroad.

Both of these were much-needed changes to the legislation on pest calls, and so too was the lowering of the threshold for issuing fines.

This was altered in 2015 so that, before issuing a fine, ICO no longer had to "prove a company caused 'substantial damage or substantial distress' by their conduct".

Nonetheless, as welcome as all these new measures were, they don't seemed to have made a massive dent in the number of complaints ICO have received so far this year.

For example, in 2014, the total number of complaints was 175,000. Between January and the end of September of this year, the total was 114,000.

Given that nine months is 75% of 12 months, it's encouraging to know that 114,000 is roughly 65% of 175,000, meaning that there's been a proportionate drop in nuisance calls.

Rogue organisations

Yet it's not a large drop, and perhaps the reason why it wasn't an especially large drop is that companies can escape fines by declaring bankruptcy and re-establishing themselves under a new name.

This would perhaps explain why ICO have been able to boast of issuing only £1.8 million in fines so far in 2016, a figure that's spread over 19 separate penalties (including one £1,000 fine for EE in April for failing to "comply with the personal data breach reporting requirements").

Since they haven't been as active on this front as they would've liked, it's only to be welcomed that they'll be receiving the power to fine the directors of offending companies.

It will prevent these directors from escaping justice by setting up a new firm, since they'll remain personally responsible for nuisance calling even if they wind down their businesses and refrain from setting up new ones in their stead.

As such, it will avoid such cases as that of Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Ltd. In September of last year, it received a £200,000 fine - the "largest ever" - for making six million automated calls. However, it appealed this charge, and since appealing it has entered liquidation.

Telephone Preference Service

And yet, it's highly likely that, even if the threat of personal liability does reduce the number of junk calls received by the public, it will still leave a sizeable proportion of these calls intact.

That's because many of them originate from companies based overseas, meaning that these companies and their directors aren't subject to British legislation.

This risk was brought out in July 2014, when ICO and Ofcom teamed up on a survey on the effectiveness of the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), which enables customers to "opt-out of receiving unsolicited live sales or marketing calls".

It found that the TPS reduces the number of such calls only be a third.

While this was explained partly by the fact that many of them do originate entirely from abroad, ICO and Ofcom emphasised that people have a tendency to tick "permission-to-call" boxes when signing up with companies or ordering goods online.

This legally permits third parties to contact them via telephone, although people should be aware that they have every right to ask said third parties to cease and desist.

If they don't cease and desist, then the new powers that come into effect from next year will permit ICO to act upon customer complaints with greater force.

And if all else fails, these customers can always get their hands on one of the numerous telephones designed to block calls from numbers that aren't on their own contact lists.

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