Most regard cold calling as a violation of privacy, writes Dani Garavelli, yet this nuisance seems to have defeated regulators
THERE’S a stunt that US comedian and prankster Tom Mabe is famous for. When a cold caller phones to offer him a “free digital satellite system,” he pretends to be an FBI officer at the scene of Mabe’s own murder. “What was the nature of your business with this Tom Mabe?” he barks at the hapless telemarketer. Having extracted his work address, he shouts over to a “colleague” to phone the local police department and get an officer round there. “Tell them he’s being sought in connection with a homicide and possible aggravated burglary,” he says. It’s hilarious because, let’s face it, we’ve all wanted to do something like that to a cold caller at some time.
Telemarketers are the bane of many of our lives. According to a recent survey by Which?, seven out of ten people have received unsolicited calls and four out of ten unsolicited texts in the last three months alone. The worst offenders are the Payment Protection Insurance and Personal Injuries industries, but lots of other companies are guilty: British Gas, BT, Sky, NPower and even some major charities are all involved.
The cold callers ring our landlines at the most inconvenient times – when we are making dinner or overseeing homework or watching our favourite TV programme. Sometimes, when the companies use automated dialling equipment, the telemarketers are busy on other calls by the time we pick up, so all we hear on the other end of the phone is silence. On other occasions, we are greeted with a barrage of forthright questions such as: “Who is responsible for the spending decisions in your house?” (Answer for most people: “The kids – would you like to speak to them?”) In the case of claims management companies we are frequently asked if we want to sue for nonexistent whiplash injuries sustained in nonexistent accidents.
In an age when people keep themselves to themselves and can control most aspects of their lives by touching a button, these intrusions into our homes can leave us feeling violated. This is no doubt why news that Cumbernauld-based firm DM Design was last week fined £90,000 for a telemarketing campaign which provoked 2,000 complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Telephone Preference Service was greeted with such euphoria. So brazen was the company in its refusal to take consumers’ wishes into account, one householder who asked to have his details removed from their system was told he would continue to be phoned “at more inconvenient times, like Sunday afternoons.”
The ICO says the punishment will send out a clear message that such harassment will not be tolerated. But is it enough? Consumer charity Which? is unconvinced. Its chief executive Richard Lloyd last week called for a taskforce made up of the four agencies involved – the ICO, the Ministry of Justice, the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom – to look at the scale of the problem and assess what more can be done to crack down. “We want to know if rules are being broken and if they are, there must be quick and effective punishment,” he said. He called for the taskforce to look at whether the statutory regulations currently in place are sufficient, and if not, for them to be tightened and/or new legislation to be introduced.
It is little wonder the charity is losing patience. For years its website has been deluged with people complaining about the phenomenon. A quick glance at its most recent “conversation” suggests that despite myriad campaigns little has changed, with many posters complaining of receiving up to a dozen calls a day. For lots of people such calls are more than an irritation, they are a blight on their lives. “This is a wretched, wearisome nuisance which makes me feel besieged and powerless,” says one woman who, being self-employed, cannot afford not to pick up when the phone rings. Another woman, whose husband has cancer, says the calls tie up the line when she’s waiting for test results. Meanwhile, an air-traffic controller tells how a company using an automated dialler made so many calls to a number belonging to the radar unit where he worked, it became a safety hazard.
Though cold-calling is not in itself illegal, companies are not supposed to phone consumers who have made it clear they do not want to be contacted, either by informing the firm involved or by signing up to the Telephone Preference Service. But they do. Sometimes it’s because the consumer has inadvertently “opted into” the calls by ticking (or failing to untick) a particular box while completing an online transaction; sometimes it’s because the calls are being made abroad (thus bypassing the TPS); and sometimes it’s because the company is flagrantly breaching the rules.
According to Which?, efforts to crack down on the worst offenders have been hindered by the number of agencies involved (for example though the ICO is responsible for marketing calls, it’s Ofcom’s job to deal with silent calls) – hence the charity’s call for a cross-agency taskforce. In the absence of effective action, many consumers have been resorting to their own methods of thwarting the telemarketers. “I once held up my rape alarm to the receiver” says one woman. “I didn’t hear from that firm again.” Some sing loudly, pretend they are foreign or place their handsets next to the radio until the cold callers hang up, defeated.
Others are using caller display screens to filter out calls from unknown or withheld numbers or investing money in services which block international calls. Unfortunately, on top of the injustice of having to pay to stop someone doing something they’re not supposed to, many people have found they’ve unwittingly been screening out calls from their health centres or their children’s schools.
It is also worth noting that taking unilateral action against cold callers can backfire. In some companies, telemarketers will pass round the numbers of householders deemed “rude” so they can be targeted en masse. And then there’s the salutary tale of the woman, who, taking a leaf out of Mabe’s book, told a caller the householder (ie her) had sadly passed away. A week later her credit card was cancelled.
As part of its latest campaign, Which? has laid down an ultimatum to the regulatory bodies: prove they can and will join forces within 12 weeks or the charity will call on the government to step in. While welcoming the fact that, from next month, insurers won’t be able to sell on details of personal injury claims, it wants companies that hold personal information to be more upfront about how they intend to use the data. It’s talking tough, but the results remain to be seen. In the meantime, giving telemarketers a taste of their own medicine is unlikely to end their pernicious practices, but it may make the thought of receiving their calls just a little more tolerable. «