‘Top five myths’ of unwanted marketing calls and texts

Tackling companies who break the rules around unwanted marketing calls and texts remains a priority for the ICO. People hate the way these nuisance calls intrude on their privacy. In the last twelve months we’ve had more than 190,000 reports about these irritating interruptions through the online tool on the ICO website, information that’s led to a number of investigations. You can expect three more fines in the next few weeks.

All that interest in the problem also generates a lot of mis-information. I often hear opinions and criticisms around this issue that simply aren’t true. So here, to set the record straight, is my ‘top five myths’ of unwanted marketing calls and texts:

Myth 1: All unwanted calls and texts are illegal

No, they aren’t. It’s important to remember we’re not going to stop all marketing calls and texts. That’s not our job, and nor should it be. The direct marketing industry contains a large number of legitimate and reputable businesses who don’t break the regulations and who sell products and services that consumers are interested in. If you find their calls annoying, you can add your name to the TPS (see below), but otherwise they’re entitled to phone you and offer you their services.

Companies can also contact you if you have given your consent. This is a huge cause of confusion. It’s far too easy for callers to claim that they have consent without being specific about where they got that consent from. It’s also difficult to be certain that you never gave some form of consent, since this requires individuals to read complex terms and conditions on websites.

We are discussing how the law around consent might be improved to provide greater consumer protection.

Myth 2: This is a UK problem.

Unwanted marketing calls and texts are a worldwide problem. In China, for instance, it is estimated that more than 100 million are sent every day. The UK is well below these levels and we’re working hard to keep it that way.

One of our biggest challenges is identifying who is making the calls, particularly when organisations deliberately hide their identity from consumers to frustrate and evade regulators. This is a global problem, with some calls coming from outside the UK. We’re working with Ofcom and other regulators internationally and telecoms companies are looking at the technology available to help us overcome this problem.

Myth 3: No fines means no action

The law is clear: fines can only be made if companies continue to break the law despite being given a chance to improve.

It’s certainly true that some businesses have operated entirely outside the rules that govern unwanted calls and texts, and made a significant profit in the process. In these instances, a large monetary penalty is the right response: the £440,000 in penalties issued to the two founders of Tetrus Telecoms is a prime example of this.

But often companies that have broken the rules have shown real improvement after we’ve spoken to them. Speaking to The Claims Guys Ltd about their compliance prompted an improvement in their practices and a 77% fall in complaints against them over six months. We saw 50% reductions in the number of complaints against other organisations too.

We’re working with more companies every month with the aim of producing the same outcomes. Of course, if improvements aren’t sustained, we’ll look to enforcement action.

For a fine, we have to show that nuisance calls or texts have caused significant distress. Even with the fantastic public response through our website reporting tool, this is still a challenge. We are discussing how the law might be changed to make this easier.

Myth 4: Regulators aren’t working together on this

Put simply, if we weren’t working closely with other organisations, we wouldn’t have achieved as much as we have already. As well as using information provide to us, the companies who we’ve spoken to about their poor performance have been identified in part by complaints made to the Telephone Preference Service, and information passed to us by Ofcom. Our search of the offices of a claims management company in Manchester late last year was prompted in part by work with the Ministry of Justice’s claims management team. And recent arrests for pension fraud by City of London Police followed intelligence provided by us to a cross-organisation taskforce targeting the problem.

There’s a lot of co-ordinated work taking place, and more is planned. You can read about the joint work we’re doing in this letter, sent to Which? this week.

Myth 5: There’s no point in me signing up to TPS

The law allows companies to make marketing calls to you without you having given your specific permission, so long as they first check whether your number is included on the Telephone Preference Service. If you’re not registered, they’re entitled to call you.

Sign up to the TPS list

I wouldn’t disagree that some companies entirely ignore this regulation, and they’re the ones we’re targeting with enforcement action. But to prove they’ve broken the rules, we need to hear from people who are on the list and have still received calls.

As I said at the top, the info we receive through our online reporting tool is absolutely crucial to our work. If you get a text you haven’t signed-up to receive, or get a call when you’re signed up to the TPS, then let us know. The information will help us to reduce the problem.

Report your unwanted marketing calls and texts

Simon EntwisleSimon Entwisle is responsible for all the ICO’s operational functions, including Customer Contact, Case Resolution, Enforcement and Good Practice as well as the Assistant Commissioners in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
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