18 million people have signed up to the Telephone Preference Service whose job is to block nuisance phone calls. But, as the TPS boss admits, the system is broken
On one day alone my home phone rang seven times. Six were nuisance calls. One tried to sell me a fraudulent carbon credit scheme; two were recorded messages from PPI companies; another was a rip-off computer “cleanliness check”; the other two were silent.
I joined the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) many years ago to screen me from telepests, but it appears to be failing miserably. Along with many elderly and vulnerable people, do I have to put up with nuisance calls, even though I have signed up to TPS? Why is it failing so badly to protect me?
For those unfamiliar with TPS, it’s a free service (sign up at tpsonline.org.uk) under which households can opt out of unsolicited sales and marketing calls. Legally, all organisations are banned from calling numbers registered at TPS. Vast numbers of Britons have signed up — around 18 million are now on the register – but many must feel that it’s no longer fit for purpose.
Research by Which? has found that TPS cuts out only a third of nuisance calls. Broadly it has been successful in blocking those from UK-based operators, but dismally fails to halt calls from overseas call centres. Closer to home, marketing organisations here (such as those that supply PPI leads) have also found numerous ways to circumvent the rules.
TPS is run by the Direct Marketing Association on behalf of phones regulator Ofcom. John Mitchison, who became boss of TPS last summer, is candid about the service’s failings. “I would completely understand if the Guardian wrote a ‘TPS is broken’ headline,” he says.
“It has eradicated lots of unwelcome calls. And there is legislation to back us up. But the rules are complex, have loopholes, are split between agencies, tend to lag technology advances, and have been low priority.”
There are different rules – and different complaint mechanisms – for live phone calls, silent calls, texts and recorded messages. Ofcom is responsible for policing silent calls, but recorded and text messages are regulated by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Occasionally, the authorities do manage to bust a company that is unlawfully ringing or texting people’s phones. For example, maybe you were one of the millions of people who received the following text: “URGENT! If you took out a Bank Loan prior to 2007 then you are almost certainly entitled to £2300 in compensation. To claim reply ‘YES'”.
It came from Testus Telecoms, a Stockport-based outfit run by Christopher Niebel and Gary McNeish that sent out as many as 840,000 illegal texts every day between December 2009 and May 2011. The ICO raided the company and fined the duo £440,000.
But Mitchison admits that such successes are few and far between. Even if consumers knew how to complain, in many cases they have no idea of the caller or the number. “So they don’t bother,” he says.
Tracking down the firms behind the rogue calls is difficult. Many are made from the Indian sub-continent, where the caller pretends to be doing a “consumer survey”, and mentions well-known high-street retailers and major charities. Other calls use the widely-abused “permission to call” let-out clause in the TPS rules.
For example, last week, First Assist, an insurer selling accident and other health-related plans, phoned me. The caller said I had RAC Breakdown cover (which is true) and it had called on behalf of the RAC.
I told the caller that I was on TPS and warned that they were in breach of the rules. But First Assist replied that I had agreed to take calls from the RAC and from other “carefully selected organisations”.
“So we have permission to call,” I was told. “Well, I’m withdrawing it now,” I replied. “OK,” they said, “but that only works for us – you need to contact the RAC as well.”
Permission-to-call is a persistent consumer bugbear. “Virtually everything comes now with tick boxes so the company you are dealing with can [not only] contact you in the future but also pass on your details to ‘carefully selected partners’ or similar wording,” says Mitchison.
There are often several boxes, and no rules as to whether consumers have to opt in or opt out. With some, you opt in on one box and opt out on another to avoid pest calls.
Mitchison says: “There can be double negatives, which are especially confusing when someone is trying to buy something fast. But once you give permission, it is unclear how long this lasts.
“The guidance is woolly. I don’t think it is reasonable to have an opt-in for life as some companies do.”
The regulations refer to consent as being given “for the time being”, interpreted as “remaining valid until there is good reason to consider it is no longer valid; for example, if it has been withdrawn or it is otherwise clear that the recipient no longer wants to get such messages”.
The ICO says “carefully selected” should mean a relationship: “If you buy trainers, it is reasonable to offer sports clothing, not a sports car.”
Market research is another loophole. TPS does not bar legitimate opinion pollsters such as ICM, which works for the Guardian, asking about political and other preferences.
So lead generators pose as market researchers. They start with “this is not a sales call” or “we are conducting a survey”. But it is not anonymous views about government or eating meat. Instead, they want information such as age, postcode and when your insurances expire – all personal valuable data that can be sold on.
“We have serious issues with lead generation companies,” Mitchison says. “Unsurprisingly, consumers fail to distinguish between market research and firms seeking personal information to exploit.”
He says that until very recently regulators soft-pedalled on enforcement: “The ICO was previously focused on other matters. Now it is committed to investigating pest calls. What we need is effective action, cease and desist orders, punitive fines, plus naming and shaming the ultimate clients. Without firms to buy leads, telepests would have no business.”
Late last year, the ICO named seven companies – Weatherseal Home Improvements, The Claims Guys, We Fight Any Claim, British Gas, Scottish Power, Anglian Windows and Talk Talk – following concerns about their compliance. These “amber warning” companies are “working to address these concerns”. The ICO expects “to see improvements in the coming months.”
Next month the ICO is expected to announce “notices of intent” against three marketing companies for ignoring the Privacy in Electronic Communications Regulations, the law intended to protect against nuisance calls.
If the prosecutions are successful, the firms could be fined more than £250,000.
BT offers an answer, but does it work?
BT has launched a phone which claims it will block up to 80% of unwanted calls, such as those from PPI merchants and other cold-marketing calls.
The phone, which costs between £44.99 and £109.99 (depending on the number of handsets) lets users block calls from “international” numbers, “withheld” numbers and those without Caller Line Identification (CLI or the result of 1471), as well as up to 10 specific numbers so that nuisance calls from a known number can be automatically barred.
Blocked calls are silently routed to the answer machine so genuine callers can leave a message.
Over the past week I have tested the phone, but it’s hard to know how many calls it barred as I don’t know how many I would otherwise have received. It failed to stop a dodgy investment company cold-calling my line.
But now I have its London phone number, I can add it to the list of banned callers. I found it easy to use, and across the week noticed a steep decline in the number of nuisance calls. It has a higher prevention rate than TPS and is definitely worthwhile, especially if you are thinking of a phone upgrade.
Beware, though, that when it blocks “unknown number” calls (those without Caller Line Identification) that includes many legitimate organisations such as the Guardian and the BBC.
However, BT is working with companies to change their CLI configuration, and some banks have already done so.