The telephone rings. You pick it up, and at the other end of the line is somebody trying to sell you a payday loan, or help you reclaim PPI, or telling you how to get money for an accident that wasn’t your fault (and, amazingly, one you didn’t know you’d had).
Annoying isn’t it?
But it’s not just annoying. It’s also harmful. These calls can leave those in financial difficulty vulnerable to making decisions that will make their situation worse. That’s why in October 2013 we launched our Got Their Number campaign; to increase the level of protection offered to hard-pressed families.
So how have things progressed over the past 18 months? And what do other countries do to stop the scourge of nuisance calls that we should do here?
The ICO is taking action
We’re delighted that since then the Government has made progress to address this issue. It’s asked the Financial Conduct Authority to consult on restricting unsolicited marketing and, just a few days ago, increased the powers of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). This change is great news and exactly what we’ve been campaigning for.
It means the ICO can fine firms for breaking its rules on nuisance calls or sending nuisance text messages, without having to prove they caused “significant damage or distress”.
This week’s Budget also promised a £3.5 million package to explore ways of protecting vulnerable people from nuisance calls.
But more still needs to be done.
The 5 improvements we want to see
A report we recently commissioned from an LSE academic shows the UK still trails many other developed nations in its approach to nuisance calls.
The report, Combatting Nuisance Calls and Texts, draws together examples of best practice in fighting nuisance calls from around the world, including places such as Germany, Norway and the US.
We believe that several policies from these and other countries could be transferred to the UK by decision-makers, significantly reducing the level of nuisance calls in the country.
We’ve outlined five improvements that we believe are vital if nuisance calls are to be dealt with once and for all.
Switch the UK from an opt-out to an opt-in telephone preference service (TPS)
It’s our feeling that the UK should switch to an opt-in register. It’s already proven successful in Germany, where an opt-in system has resulted in complaints about nuisance calls being 3 times lower than here in the UK.
The TPS is currently the main defence UK consumers have against nuisance calls. Telemarketers are not allow to contact anyone who’s registered with the TPS and has ‘opted-out’ of telemarketing calls. A step up from this is an ‘opt-in’ system, where it’s assumed from the beginning that most of us don’t want these kind of calls at all (gee, you think?)
Increase penalties against offenders
The UK regulators should be given the power to impose fines for every call made, regardless of the impact or turnover of the company in question. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Committee (FCC) can fine offenders US$16,000 for every violation. This has led to fines in 118 cases, totalling US$80m (averaging US$680,000 each), and a record fine from the FCC of US$7.5m imposed in 2014.
If such hefty penalties were enforced here in the UK, we think it’s safe to say that many companies wouldn’t consider nuisance calls to be worth the risk.
Increase the ability of the watchdog to identify wrongdoing
If UK regulators could keep a closer eye on offenders, they could stop the nuisance calls in their tracks a whole lot quicker. US regulators have had success with so-called “honeypots”. These are monitored telephone lines which attract and then detect telemarketer calls. By gathering evidence of unwanted contact, more can be done to punish those who ignore the rules.
More security for customers who are persuaded into signing up to something over the telephone
In Norway, under the ‘Cancellation Act’, if someone is coerced into signing up for something over the phone, they’re not bound into any kind of agreement until they confirm it in writing. This would typically mean that the company would have to send paperwork out for them to sign and return. The time between verbal agreement and the papers arriving would give the person chance to really consider if this is something they want.
UK rules do provide some protection to consumers, distressed or otherwise, who are talked into signing up for things over the telephone. However, once again taking a look at efforts in other countries seems to highlight areas where we’re lacking.
Introduce a ‘Frank is answering’ system
“Frank geht ran” (“Frank is answering”) is a German system that allows you put a number that belongs to an independent answering machine (Frank) on a form instead of your own number. Denying marketing companies your contact number in the first place is probably the most effective way to kill this kind of nuisance call outright.
We’ll keep on campaigning
Putting just one or two of these actions in place will go a long way to reducing the number of nuisance calls we as a nation receive every day. Visit our Got Their Number page to keep up to date on our campaign against nuisance calls and unwanted contact.