A government-regulated service intended to allow people to block cold callers is being ignored by some telemarketing companies. BBC Panorama has found that despite thousands of complaints from the public being lodged with the Information Commissioner each month, there have not been any fines imposed on offending companies for at least 18 months.
Seventeen and a half million phone numbers are registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) - a scheme designed to prevent UK-based companies from making unwanted cold calls.
However, Mike Lordan at the Direct Marketing Association, who run the TPS, says that some companies are ignoring the rules: “Companies are not abiding by legislation and we should be seeing enforcement against those companies who are persistently breaching legislation.”
The UK public receive a staggering three billion marketing calls a year. Tony Clark signed up to the TPS in the hope of blocking most cold calls but despite that he says he can receive up to five calls a day.
One company who Tony says he found particularly persistent is Central Claims Group based in Bury, Manchester. Their website states that they specialise in accident compensation claims and they’re convinced that Tony should sue his employer for industrial deafness. However, Tony has worked for himself for the past 35 years.
He says: “I’d like to know how they know about me and how they got my details.”
Panorama: Call Centres Undercover, tonight at 8.30pm on BBC One, investigates, as reporter Declan Lawn goes undercover to find out how these companies target the public. Industry rules say that companies should crosscheck their database to ensure that people who have asked not to be cold called are left in peace. But Panorama secretly filmed staff in March at the Central Claims Group tearing pages out of the phone book and calling people at random.
The programme’s filming also reveals staff at the Central Claims Group giving a variety of false company names in order to avoid receiving complaints from unhappy members of the public.
Mark Weston, a lawyer who specialises in data handling and commercial law, says: “It’s a blatant disregard for the law.”
In a statement, Central Claims group said it takes its legal and regulatory obligations very seriously and does not condone the lapses Panorama filmed.
They said they buy in suitable legally acceptable data… and have informed all employees that “using the ordinary telephone directory or introducing themselves as anything other than Central Claims Group will, if proved, be regarded...as gross misconduct warranting summary dismissal.”
The Direct Marketing Association, who run the TPS, say they have seen a dramatic increase in complaints about the industry and are referring between 1,000 and 2,000 complaints every month to the Information Commissioners Office – whose job it is to enforce the scheme. In 18 months they say they’ve yet to see a single fine imposed against offenders by the Information Commissioners Office.
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s office said that until this year, they did not have suitable legal powers to act. Although they now have the power to impose fines of up to £500,000, they say that enforcing the rules is not easy given the vast amounts of money that companies which flout the rules stand to make.
Simon Entwisle, Director of Operations for the Information Commissioner’s office, says: “At the moment we definitely are trying to take action against these individuals. We have only had the power to issue the fine since the end of January, so it’s early days yet. The other thing I have to say is there’s a lot of money to be made in this particular sphere.”
Panorama has also found that consumers should be aware of tick boxes on websites they may have visited as consenting to be contacted by them creates a loophole for cold calling companies, even if they have signed up to the TPS.
Richard Lloyd from Which? Magazine says: “Even if you have signed up to the telephone preference service now, it won’t make a jot of difference to those companies that are buying and selling that information you gave to that website maybe years ago.”
Although a nuisance to the millions of people trying to avoid cold calls, many of the companies across the UK are at least offering legitimate products. Panorama has found other firms who have used scams to extort money from unwitting consumers.
Retired lecturer Pamela Warner received a call from abroad from a company claiming to represent Microsoft. The company told Pamela that they had identified a problem with the software on her computer, which they could fix for her in exchange for a fee.
Microsoft say that customers would never be contacted in this way by one of their official partners. But Pamela took the scammer at his word and accessed a web address he gave her, where she then entered her details.
The scam cost Pamela £120 along with an additional fee she then had to pay to a legitimate company to check her machine once she’d realised it was a scam. Now she says she’s afraid to use the computer.
“It’s left me feeling quite vulnerable and quite, quite frightened of what might well still be on it.”
Panorama: Call Centres Undercover is on tonight at 8.30pm on BBC One.
It’s a blatant disregard for the law."