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No more cold calling or nuisance texts? Don’t bank on it

Find out why new legislation probably won't bring an end to unsolicited calls and text messages

The front pages of today’s newspapers might be heralding an end to cold calling, but it’s highly likely we’re going to be stuck with the plague of nuisance calls on our mobiles and landlines for some time to come. 

The outbreak of tabloid optimism has been prompted by the news that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been given new powers to deal with cold callers. Specifically, the ICO will no longer need to prove that nuisance calls or text messages have caused recipients “substantial distress” before taking action, which includes the power to fine offenders up to £500,000.

The government and newspapers such as the Daily Mail are championing this is as a watershed moment, the beginning of the end for nuisance callers. “For far too long companies have bombarded people with unwanted marketing calls and texts and escaped punishment because they did not cause enough harm,” says the minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey. “This change will make it easier for the Information Commissioner’s Office to take action against offenders and send a clear message to others that harassing consumers with nuisance calls or texts is just not on.”

Yet, the ICO isn’t exactly renowned for making maximum use of its existing powers to deal with data breaches or nuisance calls/texts. In 2013/14, the ICO had 383 staff (the equivalent of 354 full-time staff) and a budget of £20 million, yet it only managed a paltry number of enforcement actions. It issued just 19 fines (or civil monetary penalties), received undertakings from 30 organisations, and applied only 11 enforcement notices, according to the key stats published on its website

Soft targets

The ICO also has a well-earned reputation for picking on soft targets, most notably other government departments or councils. Nine of its 15 most recent enforcement actions have been taken against public bodies: councils, NHS care trusts or other civil servants. Fines in the past year include a £100,000 penalty against Kent Police for a failure to properly dispose of old interview tapes, a £180,000 fine for the Ministry of Justice for “serious failings” in the way prisons handled people’s information, and a £200,000 fine for the British Pregnancy Advice Service, a registered charity that was targeted by hackers. 

Multi-national corporations such as Google, meanwhile, have repeatedly escaped fines for infringements such as collecting personal data using its Street View cars or breaches of the Data Protection Act in its privacy policy. Kwik Fix Plumbers was recently fined only £90,000 for making nuisance calls to vulnerable victims, including pensioners who were tricked into paying for boiler insurances they didn’t need – less than half the fine imposed on the pregnancy charity for inadvertently failing to safeguard its website from hackers. 

The ICO also has the problem of jurisdiction. Many cold calls or nuisance texts originate from foreign call centres. The ICO says it uses information notices to get the telephone numbers of companies making unsolicited marketing calls, and that when they link to overseas firms “we make referrals to the appropriate regulatory authority, if there is one, in that country”. 

All in all, it seems highly unlikely that your phone is going to stop ringing with calls from “Microsoft” about that virus on your computer any time soon. 

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