Campaigners are calling for action against rogue operators

Whether it’s PPI mis-selling, double glazing  or accident insurance claims, the plague of unsolicited calls has reached the status of No. 1 complaint to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

Deputy Political Editor

It is rapidly becoming one of the most irritating features of modern life. The telephone rings. You rush to pick it up, anticipating a call from a friend you haven't heard from for months.

Instead it is an unfamiliar or automated voice trying to sell you something. Even worse, the receiver is silent apart from the distant click of a connection being made.

Five years ago the problem of nuisance calls was virtually unknown. Today levels of anger and annoyance are running so high among the public that more letters and emails are sent to the Department for Culture Media and Sport about it than about any other subject.

Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, communications and creative industries, told the Commons: "I know it is a problem from my own postbag, because, of the correspondence with the Department by MPs, I suspect the majority is about nuisance calls."

A departmental spokesman confirmed yesterday: "In terms of day to day correspondence, nuisance calls is the biggest issue."

The public's blood pressure is rising so rapidly that an all-party group of MPs is being formed next month to urge ministers to crack down on the surge in nuisance calling.

Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months - and three-quarters of people who try to block them carry on receiving them against their wishes.

Now the Government is preparing to take action against large companies which bombard householders with calls after acknowledging that elderly people can be intimidated by the "menace" of receiving dozens of unsolicited - and often silent - calls a week.

Michael Crockart, the Liberal Democrat MP setting up the group, told the Independent: "The extent of the problem is immense. For the vulnerable and those who are housebound, the telephone is their major, and sometimes only, way to communicate with the outside world.

"If nine out of ten times when it rings it is someone trying to sell them something it makes that avenue to the outside world almost unusable."

More than 100 MPs backed a demand for action by Alun Cairns, the Conservative MP for the Vale of Glamorgan.

He said: "This is a problem on a huge scale, particularly for people who spend most of their time at home. Older and retired people are more vulnerable to it.

"It is driving people to the point where they don't answer their phones - they could be missing calls from GP practices, medical services, police stations and other essential services."

Mr Cairns compared nuisance calls to "someone knocking at the door wearing a mask or a balaclava". He said: "Would we answer the door to such an unknown caller? Of course we would not. Why then do we allow the same thing to happen over the telephone?"

The Government will use a forthcoming Communications white paper to set out plans to give extra teeth to watchdogs to act against the worst offenders and offer more protection to cosnumers.

Recent research by the consumer organisation Which? found that 53 per cent of unsolicited calls on landlines were from firms hawking financial services, such as PPI claims or insurance. Other frequent callers were accident claims firms (33 per cent), non-financial companies, such as double-glazing, mobile phone and utility firms (27 per cent) and market research surveys (26 per cent).

The biggest challenge in bearing down in the problem is that responsibility for preventing abuse is split between Ofcom and the Information Commissioner's Office.

Mr Vaizey has expressed his frustration that responsibility for regulation is divided between the two watchdogs. He said the split would be addressed in the White Paper, along with giving consumers "more redress". He urged telecommunications companies to develop technology to deal with callers which withheld their numbers.

Richard Lloyd, the executive director of Which?, said: "Many of us have been bombarded with spurious claims of PPI or injury compensation, and people are telling us they are totally fed up with this nuisance and want to see action. We want the regulators to work together to properly police and punish those responsible for unwanted calls and texts, using the existing law. If they are unwilling or unable to enforce the rules, the Government should step in."

THE LAW

People who want to avoid sales and marketing calls can sign up to the Telephone Preference Service, which is overseen by the communications watchdog Ofcom.

It is against the law to call consumers on the list unless they have given permission.

The Information Commissioner investigates consumer complaints and takes action against offenders. It has the power to fine them up to £500,000, but has acted sparingly. Last month it issued a £90,000 penalty to a company selling kitchens.

There are several practical problems in registering a complaint: some callers use withheld numbers and those ringing from abroad may be beyond British law.

Calls may be legal because a householders has months before ticked a box allowing their information to be shared or because they are classified as 'surveys' and not 'sales calls'.

The Commissioner is also responsible for investigating complaints about 'spam' text messages.

Ofcom can hand down fines of up to £2m for silent or abandoned calls.

Last year it fined Homeserve, a company that offers repair insurance for home appliances, £750,000 for making silent calls.

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