In Brief

How to stop nuisance calls: new laws will help consumers

Fines of up to £500,000 are intended to deter companies that make persistent nuisance calls

Companies that make nuisance calls to members of the public will be fined up to £500,000 and convictions will be easier to secure under new laws to be introduced on Monday.

Currently fines can only be imposed if the prosecution can prove that nuisance calls caused "substantial damage or substantial distress", but that requirement will be lifted from 6 April.

According to the BBC, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) received more than 175,000 complaints about nuisance calls and text messages last year.

In January the Nuisance Calls Task Force said that up to one billion unwanted calls are received by members of the public in the UK each year, while a recent YouGov poll showed 81 per cent of the country are affected.

In the last 12 months, the ICO imposed fines on just six companies for nuisance calls and texts, including that on Direct Assist, which has gone into liquidation after being told to pay £80,000. The claims company provoked 801 complaints to the government watchdog, with one household saying it had received 470 calls.

Richard Lloyd, executive director of the consumer group Which?, praised the ICO for acting decisively, but added: "We want to see more fines when the rules change next week to make it easier for regulators to punish firms making these calls."

If you are being driven crazy by calls about PPI, debt management or other unwanted sales, here are some tips to get some peace:

How to stop nuisance calls

Blocking calls

Most mobile phones will allow you to block specific numbers, preventing nuisance callers from ringing you again from the same number. Many landline phone providers can also offer help with nuisance calls, such as blocking incoming calls, automatically rejecting calls from anyone withholding their number and providing a caller display so you can see who is phoning. However, some providers charge for these services. Some landline phones have built-in call-blocking features, or call-blocking devices can be attached to home phones to block different types of calls. In last month's Budget, the government pledged £3.5m for technology and campaigns to crack down on cold callers, including trialling and developing call-blocking technology. One relatively new device, featured on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, allows its customers to block numbers they have identified as nuisance callers, but also numbers blocked by others who have bought the device. The "Community Call Blocker" also offers the option of recording calls, which its makers say could help the ICO and Ofcom fine scammers and unlawful callers.

Register with the Telephone Preference Service

This service allows people to opt out of unsolicited telesales calls by registering their number online or by phoning 0845 070 0707. It is a free service, but takes up to 28 days to come into effect. Telemarketers cannot legally call a number registered to the TPS unless you have previously given them permission to contact you by phone or if they are calling for genuine market research purposes, so long as they are not selling or marketing a product or service.

Contact the organisation directly

If you choose to talk to the caller, they are obliged to give you the name of their organisation and its address or a free telephone number if you ask for it. You can then contact them to say that you no longer wish to receive sales calls. Organisations are not allowed to make live telesales calls if you have told them that you do not want to receive calls from them. Organisations making automated marketing calls – usually offering help with debt management or claims such as payment protection insurance (PPI) – are not allowed to call you without prior permission. You can dial 1471 to check the number of your nuisance caller, but be careful about calling them back directly as you might be charged at a premium rate.

Make a complaint

If you are still receiving unwanted calls after registering with the TPS and contacting the offending organisation, you can complain to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), either online or by calling 0303 123 1113. Try to include as much information as you can, such as the organisation calling, the date and time of the call, the phone number they used and the nature of the call. This helps the regulator build up evidence against nuisance callers and take action against those responsible. For silent or abandoned calls, often caused by call centres using automated calling systems, which generate more calls than their agents can handle, complaints can be made to Ofcom, via the regulator's website or helpline 0300 123 3333.

Share your details with care

If you have to provide your phone number to a company, ask them not to call you for marketing purposes or to share your details. Carefully check marketing "opt in/opt out" boxes when giving out your details to prevent unwanted calls from the company or third parties. You can also make your landline ex-directory to ensure it will not appear in the phone book or through the 118 directory service.

Visit the website of consumer organisation Which?

Consumer group Which? has an online tool which helps you find the right way to complain about a particular call and report the firm behind it. Just visit the page, click on 'Find the right complaint form' and then follow the rest of the instructions. Which? is also collecting signatures in an online petition to ask the government to take firmer action on the calls.

Take advice from an Ofcom guide

Ofcom has published a video guide on how to avoid the calls, which include some of the advice given here. It is presented clearly and in an accessible way. The regulator also publishes a print guide, available for download as a PDF file which is designed to be easily understood by people with learning difficulties.

No more robots

Frustration with automated "robot calls" from sales companies led Aaron Foss to set up Nomorobo, a company dedicated to blocking unwanted phone calls. It is currently only available in the US on certain internet-based phone networks, but already it has blocked more than 15 million calls to its 190,000 customers.

"Using a little telephone hackery, Foss found a way of blocking spammers while still allowing the emergency alert service and other legitimate entities to call in bulk," Wired reports. "Basically, he re-routed all calls through a service that would check them against a whitelist of legitimate operations and a blacklist of spammers, and this little trick was so effective, he soon parlayed it into a modest business."

Mainstream phone networks have proved reluctant to adopt the technology, and telemarketers are unlikely to abandon their tactics. Research suggests that 75 per cent of recipients listen to at least 19 seconds of an automated message, making it an effective way to reach potential customers.

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