Ask Sindie: How can we give cold calls the cold shoulder?

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I work from home two days a week and am horrified at the number of unsolicited calls that disrupt my day. It's not just businesses offering free holidays and the like; I've even had the phone ring only for me to pick it up and hear nothing at the other end.

I work from home two days a week and am horrified at the number of unsolicited calls that disrupt my day. It's not just businesses offering free holidays and the like; I've even had the phone ring only for me to pick it up and hear nothing at the other end.

I have had a BT landline for years and don't particularly want to go ex-directory, but these calls are a real pain. PS, Bath

Although the marketing industry claims that most UK households get only one unsolicited phone call every 20 days, your experience - and that of many others - suggests otherwise.

As you've found, being a BT customer means your number is easily available in its phone books and from its directory enquiries facility.

Your number will probably also be included on electronic directories like Phone Disc and Phone Base. These are produced by BT for those organisations, such as rival 118 services, that regularly need directory information.

You could go ex-directory, a free BT service that will take you off most company radars but also put you out of reach of old friends and acquaintances who lose your number.

As a safety precaution, your details will be passed to the emergency services if you dial 999. And BT may still call you from time to time about faults, maintenance, and service or product information.

For a quarterly fee (£29.38), you could choose an ex-directory service where any call to BT enquiries requesting your number is screened by an operator, who then rings you to see if you want to take it. "You are as good as invisible by going ex-directory," says Jon Carter at BT. You could also choose to have your details disclosed only via BT's telephone directory enquiries - not through a phone book or its online services.

Any of these arrangements can be made by dialling 150 on your BT landline.

However, companies don't just go to directory enquiries for numbers. For example, you may (perhaps) unwittingly have ticked boxes on product application forms in the past allowing sister organisations to call you. On other forms, you can grant the same permission, by default, if you don't tick the boxes.

To crack down on intrusive calls, you could subscribe to the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). This is a free facility, paid for by the direct marketing industry, which came into being after the implementation of a European directive, the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003. Once you express a preference not to be contacted, businesses cannot call you at home with unsolicited offers. They can be fined up to £5,000 if they do.

You can sign up to the TPS using the contact details at the end of this article. Some 6.2 million private customers have already done so. Once your number has been received, unwanted calls should stop after 28 days. If they don't, you can complain by going to www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk, the website of the body that polices the use of data.

Your telephone may still ring, though, thanks to a couple of loopholes. First, companies can call you as part of market research, though no marketing "message" can be made during the call.

Second, expect calls from businesses with which you already have a commercial relationship - your gas supplier, say - but only in relation to customer service. "[The call] must not then lead to a sales pitch," says Tessa Kelly, director of compliance at the Direct Marketing Agency.

Unless you are receiving crank calls, the silence on the other end of your phone line is the result of your number being targeted by companies' automatic dialling equipment. You can get rid of this - for free - by registering your number with the Silent Callgard Service on 0870 444 3969.

Contact: www.tpsonline.org.uk, 0845 070 0707. Or write to the TPS at DMA House, 70 Margaret Street, London W1W 8SS.

If you need help from our consumer champion, write to Sindie at The Independent on Sunday, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email sindie@ independent.co.uk. We cannot return documents, give personal replies or guarantee to answer letters. We accept no legal responsibility for advice given.

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