ICO fighting a losing battle over spam calls and texts

Nuisance telemarketing calls are back in the news, after fines for two firms followed demands by Which? for more action. It’s good to see the issue being taken seriously, but the authorities are fighting a losing battle unless laws change.

Michael

It’s a source of irony as well as welcome publicity that the two companies fined £225,000 in total by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) were both featured in the BBC’s docu-drama The Call Centre. Nationwide Energy Services was fined £125,000 and We Claim U Gain £100,000 for failing to make adequate checks that the people it called hadn’t opted out of telephone marketing using the Telephone Preference Service – a legal requirement.

The companies, both owned by Save Britain Money Ltd, intend to appeal.

This action by the ICO has placated Which? somewhat, after the consumer association called last week for new measures to protect the public from unsolicited and unwanted calls. It seems like a step in the right direction – and if the question were just about best practice, then it would be.

But in reality, any fine the ICO issues at present can only be a sticking plaster to treat a gaping wound, given that many spam texts and phone calls come from companies based outside the UK, who are outside of the ICO’s jurisdiction unless they can be shown to be working on behalf of a UK company.

Similarly, Which?’s recommendations – which include restrictions on data selling, easier reporting facilities for consumers receiving spam and mandatory caller identification – would be useful to buttress existing rules, but do little to remedy the bigger problems. Often there is no database involved initially, just randomly generated numbers, and being able to see and report the number does nothing to stop it at source, unless it’s a company that the ICO can penalise.

(Update: Which? says that it does, however, recommend new rules requiring UK companies to prove they are buying sales leads from companies that act within UK law.)

The only real way forward is for telecoms companies to be asked to block calls and texts coming from the numbers of known spammers. It may not be technologically or legally feasible at present, but it’s something that the regulators and the telecoms industry should be striving towards, and the law should change if needed.

There’s also a real case for banning direct telephone marketing outright, or at least for restricting it to non-profit organisations, when the purpose is to solicit claims for compensation. Whether it’s payment protection insurance or motor insurance, cold-callers today are doing little to help consumers or the marketing industry – they’re just helping themselves.

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