Five firms face unlimited fines for cold calling

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Five firms selling double glazing, home improvement and telephone services face unlimited fines for aggressive cold calling after the privacy watchdog used new powers to issue enforcement notices yesterday.

The companies, the first to be prosecuted for cold-calling, all ignored complaints from people who had objected to receiving unsolicited phone calls at home.

Last year, salesmen made an estimated 1.5 billion cold calls to UK consumers - most of them during the evening. The number has rocketed in the past two years as firms use new technology and cheap labour in overseas call centres.

The Information Commission's Office has ordered IDT Direct Limited (also known as Toucan), Staybrite Windows Ltd, Zenith Windows Ltd, Bowater Windows Ltd and Bowater Home Improvement Ltd to stop calling individuals who have already expressly told the companies that they do not wish to be contacted, or who have registered with the Telephone Preference Service to stop calls.

IDT Direct has also been ordered to stop making automated calls unless it has prior consent.

If the companies fail to stop making the calls they can be taken to court for breach of the notice and given unlimited fines. Failure to pay the fine could lead to a prison sentence.

Mick Gorrill, head of regulatory action at the ICO, said: "Most of us have received unwanted direct marketing calls interrupting our private lives. In these cases, the firms involved have not only called people without their prior consent, they have continued to call despite being asked not to do so. This is an unacceptable intrusion and we will not hesitate from taking further action if the companies fail to comply with the terms of the notices."

Four of the companies asked callers to ring another number if they did not want to be called again. But the notices make it clear that this practice is unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the company to ensure it holds accurate records of those people who do not wish to be called, said the watchdog

The action is being brought under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 . Information Commissioner Richard Thomas is also investigating similar complaints against Carphone Warehouse and Talk Talk.

One of the most common complaints refers to "silent calls" when the phone rings but there is nobody there when it is answered. Most are generated by automated dialling systems which call several numbers at once. Sometimes, so many are answered that there are not enough sales staff to deal with them all.

Phone numbers can be obtained by buying databases - the average Briton appears on about 700.