Hang up: phone blockers and taking more care over online boxes may reduce the number of spam calls you receive / Alamy
The number of spam messages and nuisance calls the average phone owner receives is enough to drive anyone to distraction. Other than hanging up for good, what can be done? David Crookes explains how to dial down the handset harassment

On an afternoon set aside to knuckle down and begin the first steps of researching this article, the phone rang eight times. Two of the calls were recorded messages which I stopped when the words "government grants" kicked in – I neither want nor need a new boiler. One was a young, confident fellow adamant that my Windows computer was infected by a virus (I use a Mac). Five were from companies claiming to represent my mobile phone provider, one of which offered an upgrade deal involving a phone that hasn't even been announced. All were a damn nuisance.

But I'm not alone in suffering this. According to consumer group Which?, eight out of 10 people received a nuisance call on their landline in the past month and Ofcom says that a billion unwanted marketing calls, silent calls, abandoned calls, spam texts and recorded messages are received in the UK every year.

While it's safe to say that this is a first-world problem, 80 per cent of people find such calls to be an annoying interruption, with a third of those surveyed telling Which? that they felt intimidated by them. For the elderly and vulnerable, they have become a particular problem, despite the Direct Marketing Association launching guidelines in 2012 to help call-centre staff identify people unable to make an informed decision.

"We had to install call blockers in the homes of two people – one was a man with dementia – because they were receiving a huge number of marketing and sales calls, 70 per cent of them nuisance," says Mike Crockart, Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuisance Calls.

The official advice for people fed up with unsolicited calls is to add their numbers to an opt-out register run by the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) (tpsonline.org.uk). If a company that has no established relationship with the person they are calling dials any of the 20 million private and landline numbers listed in the TPS's database, they are acting illegally. But, in reality, many do it regardless. Ofcom and the Information Commissioner's Office say that signing up to the TPS reduced the number of unsolicited live marketing or sales calls by just 35 per cent.

To make matters worse, nuisance calls have increased in number over the past five years thanks, in the main, to a rising number of calls from accident claim companies and the discovery that banks were mis-selling PPI. "Just about everyone has had a loan in their lives and these firms were targeting just about everyone in the UK," says John Mitchison, the head of the TPS, who describes thousands of call centre workers tearing pages from phone books, making calls and trying to get leads.

Today, calls about PPI have calmed down but accident claim companies, lifestyle surveys, computer scams and energy firms still figure highly among complaints made. It is hard for the ICO to bring about a prosecution – "it has to show that nuisance calls are causing substantial damage or substantial distress and it's a difficult one to prove," says Mitchison – and that explains why complaints about nuisance calls have been rising. The ICO received 11,276 complaints in April 2014, 13,500 in May and 15,890 in June.

Thankfully, help is at hand. As well as the TPS and a promise by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to consult with ministers on lowering the threshold for taking action, there's plenty of technology available to help people curb the number of unwanted calls, ranging from blockers which can be fixed to landline phones (try the TrueCall or Pro Call Blocker, both available on Amazon), handsets such as the BT6500, which allows users to select the type of numbers they want to block including premium, mobile and international calls, to preventative measures that stop your number falling into the wrong hands in the first place.

One of my biggest concerns was why I was receiving so many calls but, according to Mitchison, many people are often fooled into opting-in to services that they may not want by ticking incorrect boxes on the numerous website forms we invariably have to fill in.

As someone who signs up for numerous internet services as part of my job as a technology writer, it was feasible that a misplaced tick could have been the cause. Some web forms are deliberately worded to confuse people with mind-boggling sentences along the lines of "do not untick this box if you do not want to receive lots of calls from us 10 times a day" and it is not uncommon for companies to place three checkboxes beneath a web form, two of which need to be ticked and one that needs to be left empty – ticking all three inadvertently opts-in to a form of direct marketing.

Worse still, some of these boxes are pre-ticked and they are easily overlooked. "People are not really au fait with the rules of opting-in and out of marketing messages," says Mr Mitchison. "Every company uses your information, so it's important to be aware of this and to take the trouble to be more savvy about when you do and don't want to give permission for this to be used."

If you do make a mistake and it results in calls, telling a nuisance caller that you want to be removed from their database is supposed to be enough for them to stop. But it's not always possible to do this: automated nuisance calls which ask you to dial a 090 premium number cannot be reasoned with and it's never worth engaging with spam texts for fear of letting the sender know your number is legitimate, potentially paving the way for more. Automated calls can be reported at phonepayplus.org.uk and spam texts can be forwarded to your mobile network operator using the number 7726.

So what if you tell a company you don't want to hear from them again and you fear that they'll conveniently forget your request? If the calls are coming through on your smartphone, then block them. Apple introduced a call-blocking function into the latest iOS 7 operating system, allowing millions of users to prevent annoying callers from touching base with them by simply opening a contact card and selecting Block Contact. Android, on the other hand, has many different ways of blocking calls depending on the device being used but it also has a good number of effective apps such as Call Blocker, the majority of which are easy to operate.

No matter which phone or method is used, the result is the same. If an unwanted caller tries to make contact, they will hear a few rings and then a busy signal – they don't even get a chance to leave a message. But while this works well in the majority of cases, I found that some companies would get around their number being blocked by calling from another one instead.

For me, things became so bad that I began to ignore all unknown numbers before checking each one of them en masse at whocalledme.com. This brilliant website relies on its users to note down and report the names of unwanted calls but there is much enthusiasm for the task so its database bulges with thousands of numbers, giving you a good idea of who is trying to get through.

Using the site, I was able to identify any missed calls that were from nuisance numbers and block them. I then called back any numbers that were not listed, in the hope they were legitimate. It took up a reasonable amount of time but I avoided a fair amount of earache and, best of all, all of my efforts have led to blissful peace in very short space of time. "If everybody abided by the legislation and used TPS correctly, nobody would have a problem," says Mitchison.

We live in hope.