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.

5 Conclusions and recommendations

5.1 Conclusions

The level of nuisance calling into the UK shows no sign of abating in the near future. However, there are now promising new initiatives by some major network operators to suppress nuisance calls within their networks, and also new mobile call management apps, as well as wider availability of call blocking devices. Technical advances of this kind, taken together, could bring a step change in harm reduction from nuisance calls. Consumer awareness of, and willingness to take up, available protections is crucial to their effectiveness.

Relevant regulation has advanced somewhat in recent years, but the two regulators mainly concerned with enforcement against nuisance calls, ICO and Ofcom, are resourced to act against the perpetrators of only a small proportion of offending calls. Their procedures could be streamlined and improved in various respects. Greater traceability of nuisance calling through reliable CLI (which should be implemented in the UK in a few years’ time) will make it harder for miscreants to hide. However, obscure chains of business relationships, whereby for example a company gathers sales leads on behalf of another company with which it has no direct dealings, cannot be eliminated and will continue to make enforcement in this area very challenging.

When nuisance calls relate to calls in a particular regulated sector, such as PPI or energy provision, sectoral regulators may be better placed than ICO or Ofcom to rule and enforce against inappropriate sales practices. In Scotland, nuisance calls about energy efficiency have continued at a high level, and greater discipline in this sector could make a real difference. A significant proportion of nuisance calls to Scottish consumers appears to come from Scottish call centres, which offers an excellent opportunity for local action to raise standards.

Telephone scams are only one type of fraud, a growing area of criminal activity, to which almost everyone is exposed but some people are especially vulnerable. People who are worst affected by nuisance calls bear a hugely disproportionate burden of harm from telephone scams, so giving priority to identifying and protecting them will make the biggest impact on harm reduction. Often, people who are vulnerable to scams are also vulnerable in other respects, and Scottish systems of care and support for those most at risk, with inter-agency co-operation, could achieve much, if adequately funded.

The Scottish Nuisance Call Action Plan includes several potentially highly effective actions, together with others which will make valuable contributions to reducing harm from nuisance calls. If sustained for long enough, and with support from the UK government and national telcos, this could become a model initiative for others to follow.

5.2 Recommendations

These recommendations are for actions to be encouraged and supported by the Scottish Government, but mostly carried out by others. They are grouped by the lead actor. The focus is on recommendations which could be implemented for Scotland in the near future.

Scottish Government

1. Establish a co-ordination point (possibly in the Scottish Council for Development and Industry) to monitor implementation of the Action Plan, bringing together concerned actors for discussions as needed.

2. Building on existing back-end integration [97] , provide a nuisance call complaints portal for Scottish consumers, which automatically directs complaints to the right place. This would be primarily web-based, but a freephone telephone number should also be provided. This will enable it to track levels, sources and types of complaint, with desired frequency and timing so as to assess the effects of different actions or events (e.g. widespread publicity, new rules or practices).

3. Consider how best to facilitate rapid exercise of UK enforcement powers in Scotland.

4. Building on relevant UK Government efforts, set up a prize contest for innovative call management technology, including the possibility of voice recording as evidence.

5. Codify and implement best practice in publicising schemes while minimising stimulation of unwanted calls. As an immediate example, consider how best to control the telephone activity of companies selling energy efficiency improvements, possibly through Warmworks Scotland.

6. Invite Members of the Scottish Parliament to report on the profile of nuisance calls within their constituency postbags.

7. Work with UK regulators and concerned sector partners to produce improved regular indicators of progress in reducing harm from nuisance calls. In particular:

a) Discuss with Ofcom the future of their nuisance call market research and related measurements, including bought-in industry research.

b) Request separately identified Scottish findings from surveys, if possible with boosted samples to improve comparability. This will help to identify any differential effects of actions, as between Scotland and the rest of the UK. If necessary, commission complementary surveys.

c) Agree with local authorities using trueCall, and possibly directly with trueCall, access to or reports from the trueCall database. This will enable regular tracking of levels and patterns of nuisance calls to both “standard” and “vulnerable” users, which should provide evidence of effects of actions. Special analyses could include for example measuring the effectiveness of telco blocking options ( BT Call Protect, Sky Talk Shield, etc); changes over time in the effect of having a trueCall unit (do call centres eventually stop calling?); and more detailed understanding of the composition of the top X calling numbers.

d) Approach network operators about data on subscriptions to and blocking performed by their network blocking services.

e) Get regular reports from TPS of identifiably Scottish registrations (and map them to Local Authority areas); examine these before and after awareness campaigns to see if any change is observable.

Consumer advice providers

1. Review and keep updated advice to consumers on protection from nuisance calls, in the light of new call suppression techniques now available.

2. Make available to consumers, if possible without charge, independent comparable evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the various call suppression techniques.

3. Ensure that advice for people who do not use internet is available to them in suitable formats, including formats accessible to differently-abled people.

4. Consider presenting online advice interactively, to help consumers see what is best for them by answering a few questions. This would enable more options to be included, like screening calls, going ex-directory, using a dummy number when completing forms [98] , and changing numbers.

5. Report to SG on success of nuisance call awareness campaigns, and on perceived usefulness to consumers of advice on steps they can take to protect themselves from nuisance calls.

Adult care workers

1. When assessing a person’s needs for care and equipment at home (for example following a fall or on discharge from hospital), include telephone service and equipment provision, taking account of nuisance call protection facilities as well as price and other features [99] . Where change in these is needed, support the cared-for person in implementing the change.

2. Combatting social isolation must have high priority, as it should reduce people’s motivation to engage with fraudsters on the phone, on top of its other benefits.

3. Encourage people who are known to have suffered from a scam (or where they lack capacity, whoever is responsible for their affairs) to get a call blocker or equivalent network service.

Telecoms service providers

1. With Scottish Government facilitation, consider and implement ways of working with financial service providers and adult protection authorities to help to identify and protect customers at risk of telephone fraud, within appropriate privacy guidelines.

2. Publicise to landline customers the benefit of checking the CLI of inbound calls and the way to do so. If necessary, provide a free CLI display unit or equivalent facility.

3. Review the nuisance call advice provided to consumers on websites, aiming for best practice as suggested by Ofcom.

4. In consultation with the Scottish Government, consider using Scotland or parts of Scotland to pilot new approaches to getting customers signed up to call suppression services, including having the services switched on by default.

5. Share data derived from call suppression activities with enforcers and others, so as to maximise harm reduction. Report regularly in a comparable form on the effectiveness of call suppression, and on its take-up (where it does not automatically apply to all customers).

6. For all new customers, make nuisance call protection choices (such as TPS registration and call blocking on mobile handsets) a routine part of the signing-up process.

7. When Caller Display service is available free on all landlines (a new General Condition requires this by October 2018), turn it on by default rather than relying on customers asking for it.

8. With Ofcom, the MoU group should devise non-confidential indicator(s) of nuisance call volumes targeting UK users, for regular publication.

Businesses using outbound calling, and relevant business associations

1. Ensure all company directors are aware of telemarketing rules, perhaps alongside implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation ( GDPR) in May 2018.

2. With consumer representatives, review and implement good calling practices, including those for warm marketing, vulnerable consumers and debt collection.

3. Pay special attention to outbound calling practices of call centres in the Greater Glasgow area.

4. Encourage whistle-blowing by call centre agents. As a pilot, a Scottish whistle-blowing line could be set up and advertised in universities in Glasgow, to reach students who work short-term in local call centres.

5. Set up a Scottish Trusted Trader scheme, whose members would comply with good practices across the board (in relation to the services they provide as well as their use of the phone), with jointly funded consumer guarantees in case of problems.

UK regulators and enforcers

1. Ensure relevant Scottish authorities are aware of complaints about apparently Scottish companies, and any proceedings against such companies, whether informal or formal, together with any reduction in complaints about relevant companies under monitoring/enforcement.

2. Where possible, inform the Scottish Government about complaints from consumers based in Scotland.

3. Work together to improve the usefulness of complaints statistics as a management tool, for all concerned with reducing harm from nuisance calls, including the Scottish Government. Ofcom, ICO and Action Fraud should jointly offer their own best understanding of how and why the statistics change.

A further recommendation, for the Scottish Government together with the UK Government, is to keep the effectiveness of action programmes under review, and give due consideration to other ideas that have already emerged or that may emerge in future. Below we list some such ideas that have surfaced during the study. These may require further development, and their implementation (if decided on) would require broader ( UK or international) and often longer-term involvement.

Broader or longer-term actions – already under way

1. Telcos introducing improved CLI practices, under the new General Condition coming into effect in October 2018.

2. UK Government ( DCMS) pursuing Director Level Accountability for nuisance calls.

3. Cold calling about pensions to be banned.

4. Networks designing and implementing new CLI systems to prevent number spoofing with Voice over IP (widespread benefits are unlikely before 2020).

5. Ofcom to keep CLI practices under review and require further improvements where warranted.

Possible broader or longer-term actions for discussion

1. Wholesale Line Rental landline providers to offer their customers the BT Call Protect product if they have no better alternative.

2. Telcos to make it easy for users of their opt-in call suppression systems to turn suppressing a call into a complaint about that call.

3. Perhaps via Ofcom/Indian regulator links, extend call centre whistle-blowing to India, offering a bounty for useful reports.

4. All sectoral regulators to consider the role of telemarketing in their own sectors and limit it as appropriate.

5. Consider a regime for licensing UK-based call centres. Licences would depend on demonstrated compliance with all relevant rules.

6. Set up and run a publicly available database identifying the companies and purposes behind legitimate outbound presentation CLIs. Network operators would suppress spoofed calls where the presentation CLIs did not match known network CLIs.

7. Reconsider the bases for financial penalties for nuisance calling, not ruling out per-call fines (or putting a company out of business where appropriate).

8. Consider directing the proceeds of financial penalties towards protection of and redress for vulnerable consumers.


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