Why they happen and what you can do to stop them.
The phone rings, you answer, and all you can hear is silence. Although it is possible that you have found yourself in the middle of a clichéd horror film moment, it is more likely that you are a few seconds away from someone trying to sell you insurance, bank accounts, mobile phone packages or laser eye surgery, to name but a few. You are the victim of a silent call.
For most, silent and abandoned calls are simply irritating but for some they can cause distress and upset. Ofcom has produced several consultations and reports in recent years with the aim of facilitating the action taken against perpetrators of such calls.
Silent calls occur when companies use Predictive Dialling Technology (“PDT”). PDT is a type of automated calling system which allows a large volume of calls to be made at the same time. The intention is that the recipient of each call will be connected to a call centre operative as soon as they answer the call. However, silent calls occur when there are more answered calls than call centre operatives. If this is the case, some calls will be abandoned while other recipients will be the victim of a silent call as they wait for an operative to become available.
Abandoned calls can also occur when companies use answer machine detection (“AMD”) technology which cuts off any call which has been answered by an answer machine rather than an individual. Occasionally, the technology gets it wrong, ending a call which has an individual at the other end.
Ofcom explained the scope of the problem in an article published at the beginning of 2011:
“In 2010, Ofcom received over 9000 complaints relating to silent calls. Where consumers have complained to Ofcom about silent calls – and told us how often they are receiving them – over 70 per cent say that they have received two or more calls in a day from the same company. These silent calls were often over a period of days or even weeks.”
In an attempt to reduce the number of silent and abandoned calls, Ofcom has produced several consultation papers in recent years and new rules came into force on 1 February 2011 which were intended to prevent customers being harassed by repeat silent calls from the same company.
These rules (contained in Ofcom’s “Statement of Policy on Persistent Misuse of an Electronic Communications Network or Service 2010”) have strengthened Ofcom’s powers under the Communications Act 2003, which enables Ofcom to take enforcement action where it has reasonable grounds to believe that a person or a company has persistently misused an electronic communications network or services. The Act was amended in 2010 to increase the maximum fine which Ofcom can impose on a perpetrator of silent or abandoned calls from £50,000 to £2,000,000. Ofcom put its new powers into use in April this year when it fined international home insurance and repairs company HomeServe £750,000 for making an excessive number of silent and abandoned calls to UK customers.
Rules of Compliance
From a business’s point of view, the key rules are as follows:
- companies must ensure an abandoned call rate of no more than 3% of live calls per campaign;
- companies must not contact consumers within 72 hours of their receiving an abandoned call without the guaranteed presence of a live operator;
- where a call has been identified by AMD technology as being picked up by an answer machine, any repeat calls to that number within the same 24 hour period may only be made with the guaranteed presence of a live operator;
- companies must play an automated message in the event of an abandoned call telling the consumer who rang and providing a number to dial to end future marketing calls; and
- companies must make valid and accurate calling-line identification information available to consumers so they can trace who rang them by dialling 1471 in the event of a silent call.
Do you receive silent or abandoned calls?
If you receive silent or abandoned calls there are several options to consider:
- tell the caller to stop calling you. Under the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations 2003, if you tell a company to stop making telesales calls to you, they must comply with that request;
- add your details to a list run by the Telephone Preference Service (the “TPS”) which means it is illegal for a company to call you for marketing purposes. The TPS can be contacted at www.tpsonline.org.uk or 0845 0700707. It will take approximately 28 days for your details to be added to the list and if you still receive marketing calls after 28 days, you can complain to the TPS;
- complain to Ofcom using the online complaints form;
- try and identify the caller by calling 1471. If you are unable to identify the caller, contact your phone company which is likely to have a nuisance calls team who can provide you with advice and/or trace the caller’s number; and
- most telecom service providers offer, for a small charge, services such as Anonymous Call Rejection. This system blocks incoming calls that withhold their number. However, this means that legitimate calls with a withheld number would also be blocked.
Unfortunately, research undertaken by Ofcom in 2012 indicated year on year growth in the number of consumers experiencing silent calls. As a result, On 8 January 2013, Ofcom announced a new five point action plan:
1. new research - to understand fully the problems experienced by consumers and the frequency of different types of nuisance calls, as well as the companies and sectors generating them;
2. tracing those behind nuisance calls;
3. improving compliance – Ofcom, along with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), will write to businesses to advise them of the rules relating to silent and abandoned calls, and the fine of £2,000,000;
4. coordinated action – Ofcom will work alongside the ICO, the government and other regulators and consumer groups in order to tackle the problem; and
5. enforcement action – last year Ofcom issued fines totalling over £800,000 and will continue to take enforcement action to ensure companies comply with the rules.
It is worth noting that the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations and the TPS deal only with telesales calls. They do not cover phone calls from market research companies which generally relate to gathering information or opinion, unlike a direct marketing call which seeks to sell or market a product or service. To prevent a market research call you will need to contact the company directly.
It is hoped that, with the help of the new rules, the increase in the maximum fine and Ofcom’s action plan, companies will appreciate the importance of complying with the relevant regulations and the number of silent and abandoned calls received by consumers will begin to decrease.
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