Protect yourself from cold calls and texts
It has become a problem that has blighted the lives of nearly all of us: rushing to pick up a phone call, only to be greeted with a telemarketer or an automated message trying to sell us something - often of a spurious financial nature.
But has the time come for consumers and regulators to fight back against the cold-calling menace?
Millions of us know what it is like to be plagued by nuisance calls. Last year, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) - the body that polices breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations - received more than 175,000 complaints from individuals upset about marketing calls and spam text messages.
Moreover, in the past three years it has issued penalties totalling £815,000 to nine companies deemed to be acting unscrupulously in their business practices.
But while that may seem like a lot, the ICO had - until recently - been hamstrung by the legal framework it has had to work within, which meant it could only issue significant fines of up to £500,000 against companies it could prove had made calls causing "substantial damage or substantial distress".
This has now changed. Following a six-week government consultation, this threshold has been removed completely, giving the ICO the opportunity to take action against those companies that pester households across the UK if their calls cause "nuisance, annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety".
Stephen Eckersley, head of enforcement at the ICO, says the removal of the threshold will make it easier for his organisation to impose heavy fines against the firms responsible.
"The problem of cold-calling and text messages has risen dramatically in recent years and we are very pleased with the changes," he says. "It is good news for consumers, good news for legitimate organisations and good news for the ICO itself. We can now target organisations that deliberately flaunt the law."
With the newly empowered ICO now able to take action against companies, what can the general public do to protect themselves?
Eckersley says that one of the best ways people can help stop telemarketers is to register free of charge for the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) by visiting tpsonline.org.uk or calling 0845 070 0707.
Live marketing calls should not be made to anyone who has registered with the TPS unless the individual has told the company they wish to receive calls from them.
If the calls continue and you receive a call 28 days after you registered for the TPS, then you can complain either to the service itself or to the ICO, which can instigate action if needed.
Another point many people forget is about protecting their own data - make sure you look after your personal information. Companies are not allowed to contact you if you have asked them not to, though you may have unwittingly given consent while shopping online.
"People should be more careful with their data," Eckersley warns. "A good example of this is when someone buys something. Somewhere on the form, normally in the terms and conditions, there will be a little box for you to click or unclick if you want to receive marketing information, so make sure you check."
Mobile users should also be aware of what to do when they receive a spam message. If you do receive a message that claims to want to help you with your Payment Protection Insurance claim or something similar, whatever you do, do not text STOP.
If you do, you will have confirmed that your number is genuine and it is highly likely your number will then be sold on to other telemarketing firms, increasing the amount of calls you receive.
You should report the message to your network provider by forwarding the message to 7726 (which spells SPAM) on your phone keypad. It is a free service, used by all the networks, which helps them get a clearer picture of the cold-calling problem.
If you are having problems with your landline, you can go ex-directory, which has clear benefits as some companies may use directories to find your number in the first place. You could also request to change your number completely, should you experience particularly bad problems.
Many of these suggestions, however, only deal with calls and texts after you have received them – you have still had to suffer the irritation of being contacted in the first place.
Fortunately, there are an increasing number of call blockers on the market that let you block specific numbers or certain types of call (such as withheld or international numbers) in an effort to stop cold callers getting through.
Steve Smith is the creator of one of the UK's most well-known call blockers. His True Call system – which appeared on BBC's Dragons' Den – allows the recipient to choose the numbers they want to accept or block the ones they don't. Whenever you receive a call, the caller will be put through to an automated message asking them to identify themselves and where they are calling from.
If you don't want to hear from them, you can simply block the number and you'll never hear from them again.
Smith, who used to work in telemarketing software during the 1990s before establishing True Call, says cold calls can have a detrimental impact on individuals – particularly the elderly.
"When I left the industry in 1999, I could see there was a whole wave of new technology coming in that would make it cheaper and cheaper for companies to make more and more calls," he says.
"Predictive dialling (a system that allows companies to automatically call a list of numbers and connect to a receiver when it is answered) enabled them to make more calls at a fraction of the price and leads to people experiencing silent calls as well.
"For older people, who are often very lonely, it might be the only person they have spoken to all day and, as such, they are a lot more susceptible to someone over the phone. It's very sad when they get duped."
Smith says that True Call has been such as a success that he supplies the product to local authorities in England and Wales, which offer them to elderly and vulnerable people for free, while BT has begun powering its landline phones with the technology too.
While the new powers for the ICO will make it easier for companies to be prosecuted, Smith warns they will do little to deter persistent callers and criminals. Rather, he says the cure for the blight of cold calling lies in technology.
"The regulation is akin to saying there is no need to put a lock on your front door as stealing things is illegal. That seems like a particularly ridiculous position to me," he says.
"We support everything that the legislators are doing but people need protection and need protecting immediately, and I am not sure they will ever sort it. If you look at email spam, that is now sort of under control but that is only because of a level of scanning is in place. Eventually, it will be inconceivable to buy a phone that doesn't have some sort of filtering system with it."
Smith's view is supported by David Hickson of the Fairer Telecoms campaign, who remains sceptical about the new ICO powers.
Referring to digital economy minister Ed Vaizey's announcement that the threshold was being removed completely from April, he said: "It was all hype, hype, hype for me, just a bit of tidying up." "The ICO must continue to do its best to deal with exceptional cases but we would propose a complete ban on cold calling when it comes to claims management, energy selling and certain financial services.
"People get conned into all sorts of things over the phone, particularly when you think of the financial services, for example, that are offered – payday loan firms or companies offering to consolidate your debts.
"We need to stop cold calling completely rather than penalising the companies that make them."
Five ways to protect yourself from cold callers
1. Register free for the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).
2. Swap your landline number 3to an ex-directory one.
3. Consider buying a call blocker to prevent unwanted 4phone calls.
4. Report any calls or spam 5text messages you receive.
5. Protect your personal data. Check opt-in/opt-out boxes when buying online.