The ICO must wipe out the blight of spam texts

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is finally about to fine two individuals more than £250,000 for sending spam text messages, and about time too. But it doesn’t mean the problem will go away.

Michael

Over six months, the ICO has been contacted more than 30,000 times by members of the public, furious about the flood of unsolicited spam texts being sent illegally by rogue marketers. It has been a long time coming, but the announcement that two firms are to be fined and a further eight are being investigated will hopefully signal some eventual relief for consumers.

However, it will take a sustained enforcement effort to keep this epidemic at bay.

Spam texts are a blight on the reputation of marketers and data professionals. They fall outside the remit of the telephone preference service (TPS), the scheme run by the Direct Marketing Association through which consumers can opt out of telephone marketing. But companies sending illegal texts would almost certainly ignore TPS regulation anyway, since they’re already acting outside the law.

The ICO earlier this year added a section to its website explaining that the companies sending the texts, often about personal injury claims or payment protection insurance (PPI), probably don’t hold any personal details in most cases. Instead, they have been sending automated texts to randomly generated phone numbers in the hope of getting a response, then selling the live numbers as sales leads to claims management companies.

The ICO says this is likely to contravene the privacy and electronic communications regulations.

Had the ICO’s suspicions been more widely publicised, it might have gone some way towards repairing consumers’ perceptions of legitimate data marketing, since the rogue companies are effectively operating outside the system. As it was, many consumers and commentators went on for some time assuming insurance companies were selling their customer databases.

In any case, the priority now is for the ICO to pursue its investigations ruthlessly and, where appropriate, levy fines that will act as a real deterrent. Powers introduced last year mean it can fine up to £500,000.

Given that it seems the industrial volumes of spam texts are often sent by small companies or individuals, this level of fine ought to be enough to put them off. But by the same token, it’s going to be fairly easy for illicit businesses to multiply. The ICO must be given the tools and the funds to wipe them out.

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