Effectiveness of actions to reduce harm from nuisance calls in Scotland

Research commissioned to analyse the impact of actions set out in the Nuisance Calls Commission action plan, and to examine the outcomes of past interventions.

Annex A: What is a nuisance call?

This Annex was originated in November 2016 by Steve Smith of trueCall. It is reproduced here (amended) with his kind permission.

A.1 Terminology

The term ‘nuisance call’ is a catch-all description for a call that you don’t want to receive, and is therefore unhelpful as a technical term. It is possible for any phone call that you get at home or on your mobile phone to be a ‘nuisance call’. For example, a call from a close member of the family may arrive at a critical time during a tennis match on the TV.

This annex provides a taxonomy of phone calls that allows particular types of unwanted calls to be identified. The table below splits out calls into three main categories – Domestic calls (person to person), Organisational calls (organisation to person) and Other. We suggest that only the calls described as unwanted marketing calls, plus of course scam calls, are of interest to governments and regulators. Note that while they may be unwanted, some of these calls are legal.

The deficiencies of the term ‘nuisance call’ are clear – unwanted domestic and other calls may all be referred to as ‘nuisance calls’ but they are not within the remit of government and regulators.

The term ‘unwelcome organisational call’ is a more precise term that appears to cover the right ground but it is unwieldy.

‘Unwanted commercial call’ is a little more user friendly. It covers legitimate and illegitimate calls from businesses, calls from charities, and scam calls. It isn’t completely satisfactory because it doesn’t cover calls from political parties canvassing for your vote - these may be unwanted calls from an organisation, but strictly their purpose is not commercial.

Unwanted organisational calls can also be categorised in other ways:

  • By purpose – sales, survey, scam, etc
  • By industry – telecoms, energy, home improvements, insurance, etc
  • By mode of the call – live agent or recorded message (robocall)
  • By call presentation – calls may be connected, may be abandoned (with a compliant announcement), or may be silent calls

For example, robocalls (where there is no prior consent) may be illegitimate marketing calls or scams. Silent calls are usually non-compliant marketing calls, where the non-compliance may be deliberate or accidental.

A.2 Estimates of the number of calls of each type

trueCall collects data on inbound calls that around 6,000 trueCall customers with CLI agree to provide to trueCall’s central database. As far as we know, this database is a unique resource in the UK for understanding the composition of nuisance calling to landlines and changes in its level. And although trueCall users are not a representative sample of all UK landline users, the database can also help in understanding the level of nuisance calling to landlines (possible adjustments for non-representativeness are discussed in Annex H.4).

It is impossible to determine with absolute certainty whether a blocked call would have been an unwelcome call had it been connected, but trueCall have developed an algorithm that applies over 30 separate tests to determine whether an incoming call (whether connected or blocked) was likely to have been an unwelcome call. For example, it is likely to be a nuisance call in the following cases:

  • Its Caller- ID was on the user’s block list.
  • The call was intercepted, and when announced to the user was rejected.
  • The caller chose not to say their name or press a button when asked.
  • The user chose to reject the caller midway through the call.

Figure 31: A taxonomy of phone calls

Legal? Nuisance? Estimated % of all calls Estimated % of nuisance calls Basis for estimate
Domestic calls (person to person)
Friends and family calls Y N 60% - trueCall database analysis [9]
Unwelcome personal calls Y Y <1% <1% Conversations with trueCall customers [10]
Malicious calls [1] N Y <1% <1%
Organisational (organisation to person) [2]
Welcome/invited organisational calls (marketing & others) [3] Y N 3% - trueCall database analysis [11]
Unwanted marketing calls – legitimate and compliant [4] Y Y 4% 12% Analysis of top 250 nuisance calls Jan – June 2017 [12]
Unwanted marketing calls - legitimate sales pitch, but non-compliant [5] N Y 10% 29%
Unwanted marketing calls - misleading or aggressive commercial practices [6] N Y 14% 38% trueCall cost benefit analysis using Ofcom diary survey 2017
Scam calls [7] N Y 7% 19%
Unwanted non-marketing calls (e.g. debt collection, market research) Y Y <1% 2% Analysis of top 250 nuisance calls Jan – June 2017
Other [8]
Misdials Y Y <1% <1% Conversations with trueCall customers [10]
Wrong numbers Y Y <1% <1%
Call to recycled numbers Y Y <1% <1%

Notes to Figure 31

1 Calls from private individuals that are malicious. It may be a heavy breathing call, or the caller may use abusive or sexually explicit language, or threaten the called party, their family or their property.

2 Organisations may be businesses, public services, charities, political parties, etc.

3 Marketing calls from organisations whose calls have been invited – a double glazing company calling you after you have clicked on ‘Call me’ at their web site; a charity who you have asked to call you about a donation; etc. Also calls from organisations whose calls have been invited that are not associated with marketing – the garage calling to say that your car is ready for collection; the dentist reminding you of your appointment; your bank querying a transaction on your card; etc.

4 This is a call from a company that – while it is legal - is unwanted. This may include your energy or telephone company calling with a cheap deal; a company offering to assist you with a PPI claim; etc. If the purpose of the call is to market a product or service then these calls are legal only if the called party’s number is NOT registered with the Telephone Preference Service, or if consent to call has been given in some other way (possibly without you realising you were giving it, e.g. by failing to uncheck a checked box online).

5 Marketing calls from an organisation that are unwanted where the proposition is pitched fairly, but which are not compliant with the calling regulations for some reason. This may be because they ignore TPS, they don’t respect ‘do not call’ requests from people they call; they call outside allowable hours; they call with a recorded message without explicit prior consent to this form of contact; they refuse to identify themselves when asked; etc.

6 These calls may occur on the initiative of the agent or the management.

a. In the first case, the call centre agent is engaged in misleading and aggressive commercial practices (more often referred to as mis-selling) but this is not sanctioned by management. The remuneration that call centre staff receive is often heavily weighted towards commission earned for the sales they make, so they may go ‘off script’. They may exaggerate about the product or service being sold, promise discounts that don’t materialise, switch people from one service to another without telling them (‘slamming’), use coercive or exploitative sales tactics, etc.

b. In the second case, the call centre is knowingly engaged in misleading and aggressive commercial practices. This may be a matter of turning a blind eye to bad practice by individual sales agents, or the products and proposition may be intrinsically misleading – for example:

  • The call centre claims that your doctor asked them to call you about some high priced vitamin pills that you supposedly need;
  • The call centre tells you that you have won a prize, but can only claim it if you purchase overpriced products from their catalogue.

7 With scam calls there is no legitimate product being sold – the whole purpose of the phone call is to defraud the called party. This may be attempted in a single call, or over a period of time in a series of calls. Where the called party has been ‘groomed’ they may consider that the call is a welcome call.

8 These calls may be made by an individual or an organisation that places a call to the wrong phone number by mistake. There was no intention to call the party who was actually called. They fall into three main groups:

  • Misdial: The caller has made a mistake when dialling a number – typically they have dialled one or more wrong digits, or have transposed digits when dialling. For most people this is a very small proportion of the calls that they receive, but those who have a phone number that is similar to the local taxi company may get a lot of them. Though low, the incidence of such calls is said to be increasing as a result of phone use by more people who are living with dementia and similar conditions.
  • Wrong number: In this case, the caller has correctly dialled the number, but the number that they are dialling is incorrect – for example, it was misprinted in a directory.
  • Call to a recycled number: This is a legitimate phone call to someone who previously had your phone number. This is not normally a problem unless the previous user of the number was a business and, say, your number is still listed in a phone book or directory under their name.

9 60% of calls are welcome and from ‘01’, ‘02’ and ‘07’ numbers, withheld numbers and international callers.

10 trueCall customers hardly ever mention these types of call.

11 3% of calls are welcome and from ‘03’, ‘08’ and ‘09’ numbers and ‘number unavailable’ calls.

12 29% of the top 250 calling nuisance numbers were technically compliant, while 71% were not technically compliant.


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