It has long been possible to place your name on the Telephone Preference Service's central register of people who would rather not receive such calls. The trouble is, this was a strictly voluntary system, and if a company wanted to ignore the TPS list, there was nothing much anyone could do to stop them.
Now a new statutory regime means persistent offenders face fines of up to pounds 5,000 for failing to remove your name from their lists within 28 days of your registering with the TPS. Companies had until 1 June to purge their lists of the 380,000 people which TPS already has on its books. They must also remove the numbers of anyone who has contacted them directly to ask that they do so.
Phil Jones, an assistant registrar at the Data Protection Registrar's office, says: "I hope that, by moving from a voluntary system, the opportunity to control calls will be increased."
Selling by telephone is a fast-growing business in the UK. The Direct Marketing Association, which runs the TPS, says firms now spend some pounds 15.4m a year on telemarketing, and that the industry employs an astonishing 5 per cent of the country's total workforce.
Financial services companies have been quick to pick up on the trend, with banks, life insurers, credit card companies and all manner of other salesmen anxious to make the most of selling by phone and fax. At its worst, this leads to rooms full of hapless young trainees desperately working their way through the phone book in the hope of making some kind of sale before they get sacked.
Graham Bates, of Leeds independent financial advisers Bates Investment Services, says: "Cold calling out of a telephone book should be banned in this industry. I wouldn't like anybody calling me on that basis, and I wouldn't expect to do it to anybody else either.
"You have to ask yourself what kind of company you are dealing with that has to initiate business in that way. I don't think serious financial planners hammer through the phone book of an evening."
Amanda Davidson of London IFAs Holden Meehan adds: "Cold calling can be amazingly intrusive, and I can understand that pounds 5,000 worth of frustration can build up.There has to be a greater sense of responsibility in financial services," she says. "We are regulated, and we should be better than anyone else."
Virgin Direct does not cold call, but will be carrying out a monthly purge of its lists to ensure no one from the TPS list who has already contacted Virgin gets future calls.
Tony Wood, the company's marketing manager says: "Anything that helps to improve people's image of the financial services industry is not going to do any reputable provider any harm."
Under the new rules, fines will be levied only against those companies guilty of what Jones calls "wilful or negligent flouting of the rules". The maximum pounds 5,000 fine will apply only in the most serious of cases.
The beefed-up regime also includes unsolicited fax calls, although taking advantage of this means you will have to register on the Fax Preference Service's own number. Anyone already registered with either service under the old voluntary system should be automatically transferred to the new. The changes to cold-calling rules come as a result of the UK adopting an EU directive on telephone selling.
If you do continue to get unwanted calls, there is one small consolation. According to Direct Marketing Association chief executive Colin Lloyd, every wasted sales call costs the company which made it about pounds 2.50. Every time you say "No" and hang up, you are hitting them in the pocket.
Never offer to buy a product just to get rid of the salesman. But, even if you do this all is not lost.
The industry's cooling-off rules give you 14 days to cancel the purchase of any product you change your mind about. The 14-day period starts only when you receive your final contract documents.
To register with the TPS or the FPS, use the telephone numbers below. Registration is free, and registration calls are charged at local rates. Telephone Preference Service registrations: 0845 070 0707. Fax Preference Service registrations: 0845 070 0702. Telephone or fax complaints: 0171- 766 4420