Will tougher fines bring victory in nuisance call war?

caller2It seems the fresh clampdown on so-called nuisance calls – proposed in the Government’s data reforms – cannot come soon enough for the public, amid reports that consumers continue to be bombarded by unlawful cold calls; but in reality there has been tough legislation in place for years yet the problem is worse than ever.

Cold calls from claims management companies are a case in point. Three years after legislation was passed to outlaw the practice a YouGov study, commissioned by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), reveals that 55% of UK adults are still getting cold calls or texts about making a personal injury compensation claim.

Each of these people had received, on average, nine calls or texts in the previous year, while 17% of those surveyed had received at least 12 messages encouraging them to make a claim. The survey of 2,068 adults found 93% supported a total ban on cold calls and texts.

APIL chief executive Mike Benner said: “Nine out of 10 people feel annoyed, angry, anxious, disgusted, or upset when they receive a call or text about making a claim for compensation for an injury. It is no surprise with such strong emotional responses, that the people of this country want this practice to end.”

There is a similar issue with pensions. In January 2019, a ban was introduced on pensions cold calling but rogue firms are still ignoring it.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Decision Marketing recently revealed that consumer complaints about telemarketing activity hit a four-year high in the first six months of this year.

According to Information Commissioner’s Office stats, from January to June 2021 there were 83,558 complaints under the Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), covering live calls, automated calls and SMS, more than double the same period last year (38,629).

The Government’s data reform consultation paper, entitled “Data: A new direction”, reveals it now wants to bring PECR in line with UK GDPR – or whatever it will be called in the future – meaning potential fines could be increased from a maximum of £500,000 to up to £17.5m or 4% of annual global turnover.

However, the ICO does not seem to have too much difficulty dishing out fines at the moment; the problems lie in getting miscreants to cough up. To combat this, PECR was overhauled in 2018 to make directors personally liable for fines of up to £500,000 yet there has not been a single case to date.

The ICO can point to its work with the Insolvency Service, which has seen nearly 20 company directors banned for a total of over 100 years but there appear to be many more to take their place.

Disappointingly, there are no concrete plans within the consultation document, which only seeks industry feedback, and, as many have pointed out for years, many calls and texts now originate from overseas, outside the UK regulator’s jurisdiction.

Even so, the consultation does highlight that the ICO can only take action on calls which are “received” and connected, and the Government is examining whether the ICO could take action against organisations for the number of unsolicited direct marketing calls that are “sent”.

This would be complemented by a new “duty to report”, which would require telecoms providers to report when they have identified “suspicious traffic” (calling, texts etc.) on their networks.

It also calls for views on the benefits and risks of mandating communications providers to do more to block calls and text messages at source, as well as the benefits and risks of providing free of charge services that block incoming calls from numbers not on a so-called “allow list”. These services are offered by most providers but customers have to pay for them.

And this appears to be the crux of the issue. Whether they like it or not, telecoms providers will have to be on the front line of the battle on nuisance calls, otherwise the war is unlikely to be won any time soon.

The consultation will close on November 19 2021.

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