The increasing silent calls furore and general telecoms abuse by marketers have led to more proposed initiatives to make life even more difficult for irresponsible UK telemarketers. But is it too little, too late?
Who: Ofcom, ICSTIS and the DTI
When: October/November 2005
The DTI, ICSTIS and Ofcom are getting tough on rogue telemarketers. Their main quarry is silent calls caused by call centres using equipment programmed to generate phone calls, usually for marketing purposes. The call is automatically ended if there are not enough operators on hand to speak to the recipient, which means the person answering hears only silence.
Thomson Directories, The Listening Company, Firestorm Marketing and End Marketing have recently been on the wrong end of enforcement action. The assault weapon has been Section 130(4) of the Communications Act 2003. This empowers the super-regulator to take action against persons who persistently misuse telecommunications networks or services in a way that causes unnecessary annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety.
The Statute provides for a maximum penalty of £5,000. To date, however, cases in which Ofcom has meted out the £5,000 fine or indeed any fine at all have been few and far between, despite the fact that excessive silent calls have become a real problem overnight and are one of the principal drivers behind ballooning Telephone Preference Service registrations. These are now running well beyond 10 million and look set to extend to half the UK adult population by 2010 if not before.
New weapon #1
The new attack on these practices takes three forms. Firstly, the DTI is consulting on a significant hike in the maximum penalty for persistent telecoms misuse from £5,000 to £50,000. The deadline for responses to the proposal is 24 January 2006 and the proposes instrument by which the penalty will be increased is "The Communications Act 2003 (Maximum Penalty for Persistent Misuse of Network or Service) Order 2006.'
New weapon #2
The second prong of the assault takes the form of amendments to Ofcom's 'Statement of Policy on the Persistent Misuse of an Electronic Communications Network or Electronic Communications Service'. The consultation on the proposed changes to the Statement was published on 31 October 2005 and the deadline for responses is 9 January 2006.
Section 131 of the Communications Act requires Ofcom to publish a statement of its general policy with regard to the exercise of its powers to take action in respect of persistent misuse of networks.
Irritatingly, the consultation on the proposed changes to the Statement does not highlight the draft amendments. However, the suggested changes boil down to five new rules. All of these apply to any call centre, whether in the UK or overseas, that has been commissioned by a UK company. They bear an uncanny resemblance to the changes made to the Direct Marketing Association Code some months ago. The give are as follows:-
- a recorded message must identify the source of the silent call and offer the recipient the opportunity to decline further calls;
- Calling Line Identification (CLI) must be presented on all outbound calls, allowing recipients to dial 1471 and find out the number of the organisation calling;
- telephone numbers dialled and abandoned should not be called against by the automated dialer for at least 72 hours, unless a dedicated operator takes the call;
- abandoned call rates must be below 3% of total calls for any 24 hour period for each campaign;
- records must be kept to demonstrate compliance with the above rules.
New weapon #3
Priming weapon no. 3, back in June 2005 the DTI published yet another consultation document aimed at the telemarketing industry. This related to the regulation of premium rate services ("PRS"), overseen by the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services ("ICSTIS").
Throughout 2004 large numbers of instances of consumer harm were recorded, resulting from abuse of PRS.
In the summer of 2005 the DTI asked Ofcom to condut a review of the regulation of PRS and the resulting consultation document published on 29 June 2005 proposed an increase in the maximum fine for breaches of the ICSTIS Code from £100,000 to £250,000. The deadline for that consultation, 20 September 2005, has now passed.
Why this matters:
Some have suggested that the UK's telemarketing industry faces meltdown unless much firmer action is taken. Some might say that Ofcom's call for an increase in the £5,000 fine for persistent misuse of telecommunications networks is the wrong solution, given that over the two years at least that Ofcom has had power to levy fines of £5,000, little or no such fines have been imposed.
Others complain that the telemarketing sector suffers from too many regulators and too many different sets of rules. There's ICSTIS but also Ofcom looking over its shoulder and in the background the DTI together with the Advertising Standards Authority. In terms of rules there is the ICSTIS Code of Practice, the Communications Act 2003, the CAP Code, The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, the Direct Marketing Association Code and the Mobile Marketing Association Code to name but a few.
There is no sign any time soon of any streamlining of this cumbersome system, by there may be calls for such action if the present raft of proposals are adopted and still fail to make any real impact on current abuses. All look set to be adopted and in force by February/March 2006.