Any hope that Covid-19 would batter cowboy marketers has been scotched by a fresh surge in nuisance calls targeting the over 70s with pandemic scams around swab tests and vaccines, with the regulator estimating that the coronavirus now accounts for a third of all rogue calls.
While official figures reveal a 20% reduction in complaints about nuisance calls for the year, mainly due to the first lockdown, the numbers are now back up and the Information Commissioner’s Office predicts complaint levels will not fall again for the foreseeable future.
In total, there were 103,733 complaints under the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations in 2020, compared to 129,354 in 2019 and 124,363 in 2018.
This was mostly accounted for by a dip in complaints received during the first lockdown, between March and June; April saw one of the lowest level of complaints on record with “just” 473 gripes, compared to the average of 300 a day, seven days a week for the year.
However, in a call blocker programme funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, National Trading Standards led a programme to install more than 1,000 free call blocker units in people’s homes.
The programme was designed to test their effectiveness at preventing nuisance calls, improving victims’ wellbeing and providing intelligence to support investigations against the perpetrators.
Some 1,084 call blockers were installed and, after six months, more than 1 in 3 (35%) of the 283,700 calls received by the units were found to be scam or nuisance calls. Over 98,700 scam and nuisance calls were blocked by the units – more than 99% of the scam and nuisance calls received – saving consumers a projected £20,227,167.42.
The average age of people using the call blockers was 75. The number of nuisance and scam calls prevented suggests that people in this age range are three times more likely to be targeted by scam or nuisance calls.
On average, 23 scam and nuisance calls were prevented from reaching call blocker users every month. Meanwhile, the general population is thought to receive seven scam or nuisance calls per month.
Louise Baxter, head of the National Trading Standards Scams Team, said: “This pilot clearly demonstrates that call blocking devices can eliminate the vast majority of scam and nuisance calls and protect victims from these crimes. Our report provides further evidence that people over the age of 70 are far more likely to be preyed on by nuisance callers – and that this can have a detrimental effect on their emotional and physical wellbeing.
“Scam and nuisance calls can cause financial loss, emotional distress, social isolation, a loss of confidence and in some cases physical harm caused by poverty and stress. All regular landline users are likely to benefit from call blocker technology and we’re calling for devices to be made available to people in vulnerable situations to help safeguard them from fraud, scams and financial abuse.”
According to the ICO, the highest level of complaints for 2020 – 33% – did not fit into any of the established categories, leading the regulator to suggest they are the result of nuisance contact relating to Covid-19. It has now added a specific coronavirus category to enable easier complaint review.
Accident claims and broadband the next highest reported topics, accounting for 23% and 14% respectively. Other topics were responsible for less than than 6% of complaints each. The most reported within these topics were, banking, energy saving and insurance.
The move coincides with a fresh round of enforcement action by the ICO, which has seen the regulator issue fines totalling £270,000 to two separate companies for making unlawful marketing calls to numbers registered with the Telephone Preference Service.
Call Centre Ops of Nottingham and House Guard of Bournemouth, were found to have made almost 860,000 illegal calls between them, resulting in complaints to both the ICO and the TPS.
The ICO’s investigation found that Call Centre Ops, a marketing company, made a total of 159,461 unsolicited direct marketing calls between May and October 2019. They have been fined £120,000.
House Guards of Bournemouth, which provides masonry protection solutions, was found to have made 699,966 nuisance calls between May and December 2018, over half of which were to TPS-registered numbers. They have been fined £150,000.
ICO head of investigations Andy Curry said: “If you sign up to the TPS, you should not expect to get nuisance calls. It’s as simple as that. Companies that have no respect for their customers’ wishes and choose to flout the law, can expect to face consequences – for their reputation and to their bottom line.”
He added: “By complaining via the TPS and the ICO, the public help us hold these companies to account. We encourage people to sign up to the free TPS service and report any unwanted calls they receive to the ICO.”
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