When: May 17 2013
Law stated as at: June 4 2013
Phone calls down; nuisance calls up
Telecommunications reached a turning point in 2011. The amount of time that people spent actually talking on the telephone fell for the first time on record, declining by 5%. For landlines, the figure in that year was even higher – a decline of 10%.
While fewer people are now using the telephone, there were still an estimated 24.12 million users at the end of 2012, which still offers a broad base for marketers. Indeed, the number of people receiving what they consider to be nuisance phone calls appears to be on the up.
These can include “silent calls” – often caused by call centre’s automatic dialling systems which ring a consumer, but are then unable to connect the call to a call centre operator. This results in a silent line which can understandably make many consumers uneasy.
Ofcom’s 2012 Consumer Experience Report shows that the percentage of adults with a landline who had experienced a silent call within a 6 month period (likely to be from a call centre’s automatic dialler service) had grown from 24% in 2011 to 47% in 2012.
Aware of consumer concerns, Ofcom has already set strict rules covering, among other things, how often a number can be dialled by autodialler software, and limiting the amount of time an automatic call can be silent before an automated message is played.
Ofcom’s new report
In the light of consumer concerns about unwanted telephone marketing, including silent calls, Ofcom last month published a new study concerning this problem. The study was based on consumers keeping a diary recording certain information regarding all unwanted calls received on their home landline over a four week period. Its key findings were as follows:
“Eighty-two per cent of participants received an unwanted call.
Among those consumers, the average number of unwanted calls received was 8.4 per person over the four-week period (or around two per week). A quarter (26%) reported more than ten nuisance calls over the four weeks.
Calls about PPI claims made up 22% of all nuisance calls, where the panellists were able to identify the product or service, rising to 51% of identifiable unwanted recorded sales calls. Energy (10%), market research (10%) and insurance (8%) were also among the most commonly cited reasons for unwanted calls.
The most prevalent types of nuisance calls were live marketing calls (38%), followed by silent calls (34%) and recorded sales calls (14%).
Participants were only able to identify the name of the company calling in one in five nuisance calls (20%) and the telephone number in one out of every three nuisance calls (34%).
The majority of unwanted calls were considered ‘annoying’ (86%) with PPI related calls found to be most annoying (97%). Seven per cent of unwanted calls were not considered a problem and 1% were ‘useful’.
Seven per cent of nuisance calls were considered ‘worrying’ while 3% were ‘distressing’. Calls from companies purporting to offer computer support or maintenance were the most worrying (31%) and distressing (13%).”
This report certainly did not mitigate the concerns in relation to silent calls, reporting that 54% of adults with a landline phone surveyed had experienced a silent call (although Ofcom stress that this is not directly comparable with previous results as the methodology was different). In terms of the rest, live marketing calls were cited as a particular problem, with 97% of consumers surveyed finding PPI related calls the most annoying.
It is worth noting that although one of the survey questions related to whether the respondent had registered with the Telephone Preference Service, this breakdown is not included in the report. It is therefore not clear how many of these calls were to people who had actually opted out of receiving unsolicited marketing calls.
What is Ofcom proposing to do?
The regulator has pledged to “use the full extent of its legal powers” to combat abandoned and silent calls; calls which break the law on marketing to people who have opted out; or operators who do not effectively allow consumers to opt out. Some examples given in its press release include:
1. issuing fines or taking other enforcement action (the regulator draws attention to its recent £750,000 fines on Homeserve and Talk Talk);
2. discussions with offending companies to promote compliance;
3. working with the telecoms industry to find better ways of tracing companies behind nuisance calls;
4. working with the Information Commissioner on a joint initiative to address the root causes of nuisance calls, to be published in the next few months. To do this Ofcom has asked the government to relax current rules to make it easier to share complaints data with the ICO; and
5. review of the current regulatory framework to establish whether an alternative model would help reduce consumer harm.
Review of regulation
• Unconnected to Ofcom’s report, Lord Selsdon has launched a Private Members Bill in the House of Lords in an attempt to change radically the regulatory framework surrounding cold calling in general. The “Unsolicited Telephone Communications Bill” (the “Selsdon Bill”) has been published and has received its first reading.
• Currently, in the UK, the onus is on the consumer to opt out (by registering with the Telephone Preference Service). In the event that the Selsdon Bill becomes law, the reverse will be true (i.e marketing will be limited to consumers on a register who have indicated that they are happy to receive telephone marketing). However, given that only around 11% of Private Members Bills end up becoming law, it is perhaps unlikely that the Selsdon Bill will make it onto the statute book.
Why this matters:
While the proposals in the Selsdon Bill may be unlikely to become law, telemarketers should be aware that Ofcom and the ICO are continuing to take a keen interest in nuisance calls. The proposed joint initiative follows on from an open letter written by both bodies earlier this year, highlighting that marketers needed to comply. The exact shape of this initiative remains to be seen, but, whilst likely to stop short of making telemarketing opt-in, is likely to impose even tighter controls on how marketers can target users with unsolicited calls.