We all know the feeling.
The phone rings just as you are about to set off for work, collect the children from school, or sit down to dinner, and you have to make a split-second decision. Should you answer it because it might be a family emergency, or let it ring in the likelihood that it is a cold-caller trying to sell you something, pester you about PPI mis-selling, or just bother you with silence, followed by unexplained clicks and whirrs?
According to the office of Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and Communications, cold-calling is now top of the list of complaints it receives from members of the public. And it is not just the annoyance such calls cause to ordinary mortals just trying to live their lives. For some, especially elderly people living on their own for whom the phone is their lifeline, they are more than a nuisance. They can raise false hope, they can trigger worry or alarm, and they raise the spectre of a new round of mis-selling. They also block the line for genuine callers.
In theory, the subscriber has remedies. The regulator, Ofcom, can already fine companies for breaching the rules on silent calls. The Information Commissioner has new powers to fine those who violate provisions on direct marketing and spam texting. Something called the Telephone Preference Service allows people to opt out of receiving certain categories of calls. But the rules often seem to be overlooked or flouted with impunity.
One partial solution – a counsel of despair – is the choice more and more people are making to desert their landline and use only a mobile phone. So long as they need a line to connect to the internet, though, this produces few savings and the nuisance has already spread to mobile phones in the form of spam texts.
The Government says it will include tougher penalties for rule-breakers and enhanced recourse for consumers in a Communications White Paper later this year. This is all very well, but it should also explain why, in the meantime, existing sanctions are so little used.