Carphone faces huge fine over 'persistent' silent calls

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Carphone Warehouse is bracing itself for fines running into thousands of pounds after the telecoms regulator Ofcom accused the company of persistently irritating customers by making silent calls.

Silent calls occur when call centres use automated systems to dial residential numbers but fail to connect the call to an agent. These abandoned calls can irritate and even disturb people who answer their phones and are greeted by silence.

Ofcom cracked down on silent calls this year by setting clear guidelines that companies using automated systems have to adhere to and increasing the maximum potential fine for misuse to £50,000.

After an investigation, the regulator said the telecoms companies Carphone Warehouse and Toucan and the kitchen supply companies Brakenbay and Space Kitchens had persistently breached its guidelines.

The regulator said: "Each of these four companies has engaged in persistent misuse of an electronic communications network or electronic communication services in a way that causes annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety to consumers."

Ofcom said the companies had failed to include a recorded message, as required, explaining that the call had been abandoned. It also said that companies must ensure that no more than 3 per cent of calls made per day are abandoned. Yet these companies abandoned up to 20 per cent.

Carphone has come in for significant criticism over recent months as a result of lengthy delays in connecting customers to its broadband service. It has also been admonished for misleading advertising as a result of its "free broadband forever" slogan. It has invested a significant amount in bulking up its call-centre staff to improve connection times.

The companies have until 6 December to respond to Ofcom's accusations and could face fines running into hundreds of thousands of pounds as the allegations state that the guidelines have been breached many times. Ofcom said that it would decide whether to impose financial penalties after that date.

A spokeswoman for Carphone said it endorsed Ofcom's stipulations and was working with the regulator to tackle the issue. "We will ensure we adhere to industry best practice and then exceed this best practice," she said.

The internet company Pipex bought Toucan this summer. A spokesman for Pipex said: "As the new owner of Toucan, we take this issue seriously. We are already working to ensure consistent compliance with Ofcom's statements of policy on these matters." He added that Toucan's average daily call abandonment rate was 2.4 per cent between March and November, below Ofcom's threshold.