John McLellan: How I took on a dodgy cold caller selling insurance

Many calls to landlines are unwanted (Picture: Getty)
Many calls to landlines are unwanted (Picture: Getty)
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About half of all calls to landlines in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are unwanted, writes John McLellan.

Nine out of ten Scots know what it’s like. Just as tea is on the table the phone rings with what looks like a proper number: “Hi, is that John? You had a good day? No, I’m not trying to sell you anything…”

Those that come up “international” are easy to ignore, but not-so-cleverly disguised cold calls are the bane of modern life. Sometimes, I can’t help stringing them along to see what happens, although my wife took great exception when I told one in a solemn Late Call voice that I was terribly sorry but Mr McLellan has only just passed away that very morning.

Just before Christmas I took a call from a woman sounding like an EastEnders extra who said my boiler insurance was due for renewal and she could save me £150 there and then. She asked what bank I was with, wanted to check my card details, but got extremely shirty when I refused even get the card, never mind read her the number. The call ended.

READ MORE: Ban on cold callers in 100 residential areas throughout Edinburgh

Of course we don’t have boiler insurance. A check on the “Who Called Me” website revealed three entries for the company name that she mentioned since August. “I’ve just been conned out of £150,” said one. “The company managed to get £150 out of my partner. Disgusting organisation,” said the second. And the third: “Called my parents who were conned into paying two £75 payments.” Another website, DIYnot, told a similar story: “They’ve taken £150 from my mum’s bank account.”

I looked up the address for the company in north London, which Google Streetview showed was an unassuming street of terraced houses facing the back of a disused DIY store. But it was also the address of another firm which, according to its website, is a major UK incorporation agent that apparently is “not just a faceless, web-based company”. It has “a team of skilled and friendly staff for all your business questions”. Which is just as well because there are over 15,000 companies registered at that address, although how they all fit into a three-bedroom house is another matter.

READ MORE: Nuisance calls firm fined £400,000 for 100 million calls

The firm that called me has one director, who lives in Essex. He is also director of another company which describes itself as a provider of “home tech specialist solutions” and is connected to reports of attempts to sell unauthorised insurance for Sky boxes. Its website is beyond parody, offering a “fully focused system signal check to insure (sic) the system is receiving the best signal possible for its geo location. This includes a customer visual check of the area concerning the dish so we can assess the dishes (sic) range.” In other words, you go outside and have a look.

Part of the pitch was to give me a telephone number and sure enough, on a calling back, it was answered by someone saying it was indeed the firm mentioned in the call. I first rang to lodge a complaint and the promised return call never came. I called again to speak to the director, and when I said I was both a journalist and a councillor, the chap said he didn’t know him, that he was only maintenance and everyone had gone home for the night.

But he took my details and, lo-and-behold, the next day the director rang; bit of a diamond geezer who’d probably be good fun down the boozer.

“We’re a reputable company, don’t think ill of us because of what you’ve read, I’m a young guy setting out trying to earn a living …” that sort of thing.

I began to feel a bit sorry for him, which shows what a good operator he is, a natural-born Apprentice candidate. “Lord Sugar, my business is low-cost, high turn-over and very scalable, and boiler maintenance to maximise efficiency has an ecological message which is very much in keeping with the times…” You’re hired….

Being public-spirited, I tried to call the local council’s trading standards department and got a chap with a vaguely familiar but hard-to-locate accent, not that surprising for London. He took down the details but warned that as he was part of a UK-wide service he couldn’t guarantee what would happen. “Where are you based?” I asked, thinking it would be somewhere like Slough or Stoke. “We’re in the Western Isles,” he said.

It’s not just London; if you’ve got a problem with a nuisance cold caller, rogue trader, or generally dodgy service in Glasgow, Aberdeen or Dundee and you phone the council trading standards department, you’ll be speaking to a Hebridean working for Citizens’ Advice whose UK call centre is in Stornoway.

Edinburgh and Stirling councils are two of a dwindling number of councils not to have outsourced their trading standards contact system, but the consumer affairs organisation Which? has been running a reporting service as part of its campaign to clamp down on unwanted calls.

Their research shows that 90 per cent of Scots received nuisance calls on their landlines (can it be that low?), the worst being Glasgow where 51.5 per cent of all calls to landlines are unwanted. In Edinburgh the figure was 48 and in Aberdeen 45.

The Scottish Government announced an action plan in September to boost the Which? campaign, so if you get a call from one of these companies, make sure you report it.

John McLellan is director of The Scottish Newspaper Society and a former editor of The Scotsman