Steve Smith: Robocall rise will pile on phone nuisance

WE all have a different experience of nuisance calls. What to some people is just an occasional annoyance is to others an unacceptable barrage of interruptions. To older and vulnerable people, such calls can even cause confusion and anxiety.

Recent research for Scottish Trading Standards has revealed more than 40 per cent of the calls some people receive are unwanted calls from research or telemarketing companies.

The nuisance-call explosion started in the 1980s with the deregulation of the telecoms industry, falling telecoms costs and the increased use of call centres by private companies eager to deliver more leads to help them match sales targets. At that time, we all joked about the calls we received from double-glazing salesmen, but little were we to know that the floodgates were about to open.

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Over the next 20 years, the number and frequency of nuisance calls increased as the cost of telemarketing reduced. Companies saw an opportunity to maximise productivity by using call centre technology, which generated silent calls. Many went a step further by outsourcing call centres to developing countries with low wage economies, such as India, decreasing their call costs even further.

The anonymity granted to such callers makes it easier for scammers to remain untraceable. It was recently reported that around 15 per cent of households in the UK had received calls from scammers, stating that they had identified that their computer contained a virus (the so-called Microsoft Scam). So convincing were they that around one in six people fell for the scam, losing an average of £100 each.

This is far from being an exception, with new scams emerging all the time, including most recently, the BT scam. Calls were made by individuals claiming to be from BT, notifying householders they had an overdue phone bill and that their phone was about to be cut off unless they revealed their credit card details.

Similarly, the courier scam typically targeted the elderly and vulnerable. This despicable scheme involved criminals calling individuals, claiming to be from their bank or even from the police. They advised that their card had been used fraudulently and needed to be replaced. After gaining trust by asking the person to call the bank on the number on the back of their card (but keeping the phone line open so, in fact, they were still speaking to the same person), they were then requested to reveal their bank details. An associate scammer would then call at the house with the “replacement” card (a fake) and would take the actual bank card away, using it to make significant withdrawals.

This problem isn’t limited to the UK. The new phenomenon of “Robocalls” has found its way from America to the UK. When you pick up the phone you hear a recorded message rather than a person, and if you press a button on your phone, you are connected to a call centre agent.

The average cost for a call centre to phone you with a live agent is around 20-40p. With a Robocall, however, the company is paying less than a penny to contact you, which means they can make tens of thousands of calls repeatedly, over a relatively short period of time. This can be very profitable for the call centre company as should you respond to a personal injury Robocall, for example, they may be able to sell your details to a law firm for hundreds of pounds.

Finally, the government and regulators are beginning to take notice, with the media regularly featuring updates on nuisance calls and steps taken to cut them. The focus currently is on preventing call centres making these types of calls and the marketing press is predicting the death of telemarketing as a result. In addition, the Information Commissioner recently fined DM Designs, a Glasgow home improvements company, £90,000 for making nuisance calls – the first fine of its kind; though, we are told, there are several other companies under examination. Even though we are beginning to see hefty fines for culprits, the success of this approach is likely to be limited, given the international nature of the industry. A second approach involves individuals purchasing and installing their own call blocking tool in the home.

Sadly, we shouldn’t expect the calls to stop anytime soon. Telecoms costs are continuing to fall, meaning nuisance calls to mobile phones could soon start to become a bigger problem.

• Steve Smith works for call blocking tool trueCall