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Ofcom research reveals extent of nuisance calls

  • Consumers received on average around two nuisance calls per week
  • Payment Protection Insurance claims companies responsible for more than half of identifiable unwanted recorded sales calls
  • Ofcom announces further action against suspected abandoned and silent calls with focus on claims management sector
  • Call for wider action to address problem of nuisance calls

A new Ofcom study into the problem of nuisance calls reveals the extent to which they are affecting UK consumers.

It found that consumers who experienced unwanted calls received around two per week on average, with four in five participants receiving at least one nuisance call during the four-week research period. Calls about Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) made up the largest proportion of unwanted calls that could be identified.

The news comes as Ofcom recently announced it is investigating suspected abandoned and silent calls made by companies within the claims management sector, and called on other authorities to help address the problem.

Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director, said:

“Two nuisance calls a week is too many and this detailed research will help us understand the root cause of the problem.

“We will use the full range of our powers to tackle abandoned and silent calls, but this is a complex area that requires joint action from a number of different agencies and Government. We are therefore working with the Government and other regulators to help drive a coordinated and more effective response to nuisance calls.”

Key findings from the research

Ofcom’s study asked consumers to keep a diary to record all unwanted calls received on their home landline over a four-week period.3

This measured the number, type and frequency of nuisance calls and gathered information about each call, where available; including the type of organisation making the call and whether the caller’s telephone number was identifiable. Key findings included:

  • Eighty-two per cent of participants received an unwanted call. Among those consumers, the average number of unwanted calls received was 8.4 per person over the four-week period (or around two per week). A quarter (26%) reported more than ten nuisance calls over the four weeks.
  • Calls about PPI claims made up 22% of all nuisance calls, where the panellists were able to identify the product or service, rising to 51% of identifiable unwanted recorded sales calls. Energy (10%), market research4 (10%) and insurance (8%) were also among the most commonly cited reasons for unwanted calls.5
  • The most prevalent types of nuisance calls were live marketing calls (38%), followed by silent calls (34%) and recorded sales calls (14%).6
  • Participants were only able to identify the name of the company calling in one in five nuisance calls (20%) and the telephone number in one out of every three nuisance calls (34%).
  • The majority of unwanted calls were considered ‘annoying’ (86%) with PPI related calls found to be most annoying (97%). Seven per cent of unwanted calls were not considered a problem and 1% were ‘useful’.­­
  • Seven per cent of nuisance calls were considered ‘worrying’ while 3% were ‘distressing’. Calls from companies purporting to offer computer support or maintenance7 were the most worrying (31%) and distressing (13%).

Tackling the problem

Ofcom is using the full extent of its legal powers to address the issue of abandoned and silent calls – the types of nuisance calls for which Ofcom has the main responsibility.

Ofcom is also working with other bodies and agencies that have legal powers to address unwanted calls. For example, the Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for regulating nuisance marketing calls and texts while the Claims Management Regulator, part of the Ministry of Justice, oversees the conduct of claims management companies.

Ofcom believes that the current regulatory framework should be reviewed to establish whether an alternative model would be more effective in reducing consumer harm.

Ofcom is developing proposals to look at possible ways of tackling the root causes of nuisance calls, which it intends to share with Government. In addition, Ofcom has this week written to the Ministry of Justice to draw attention to the extent to which PPI claims appear to be driving nuisance calls, as highlighted in the research.

Alongside the publication of its research, Ofcom has also updated on progress made against the four other parts of its five-point action plan, published in January, to tackle nuisance calls.

Enforcement action

  • Ofcom is continuing to take enforcement action against companies who break the law and Ofcom’s policy on abandoned and silent calls.8 Ofcom is today announcing that it is investigating and considering enforcement action in relation to suspected silent and abandoned calls made by companies within the claims management sector. It is also considering options for action against those companies that fail to provide consumers with a valid number enabling them to stop further calls.
  • Ofcom last month concluded its investigation into TalkTalk, resulting in the company being fined £750,000. This followed a £750,000 fine against Homeserve in April 2012.

Improving Compliance

  • In addition to formal enforcement action, Ofcom has held detailed discussions with eight companies to date this year to bring them into compliance with the legislation and Ofcom’s policies on abandoned and silent calls.
  • Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office recently sent an open letter to around 170 organisations across the marketing industry to underline their compliance responsibilities.

Tracing those behind nuisance calls

  • Ofcom and the telecoms industry are working together to identify ways to trace companies behind nuisance calls where they try to hide their identity, and to look at ways to prevent such calls. BT has set up an industry forum to take this work forward. Ofcom has written to key telecoms providers and industry organisations to seek their cooperation and commitment to making progress in this area.
  • At Ofcom’s request, the technical standards body for the UK communications sector9 is examining how call tracing across all telephone networks can be improved. This will also look at ways of identifying potential nuisance calls on the network and how to restrict them.
  • BT has agreed to display full incoming International numbers as routine. Ofcom believes that this information is vital to help consumers decide whether to answer an international call or not. It will also allow consumers to provide more detailed information when making a complaint about a nuisance call and help regulators to analyse complaints data more easily, so action can be taken, where appropriate. This requires technical changes in BT’s network, which will take some time to implement, and Ofcom understands BT will make an announcement at a later date.

Coordinated action

  • Ofcom and the ICO are currently developing a joint initiative to address the root causes of nuisance calls and will be making a further announcement on this in the coming months. To support this work, Ofcom has asked the Government to relax current rules to make it easier for Ofcom to share information, such as complaints data, with the ICO.
  • A guide for consumers on preventing and complaining about nuisance calls (produced with regulators and consumer groups) is available on the Ofcom website and has been viewed online almost 130,000 times



1. Eighty-two per cent of research participants received an unwanted call. Among these consumers, the average number of unwanted calls received was 8.4 per person over the four-week period, or around two per week.

2. Figure relates to instances where respondents were able to provide a description of the product or service being provided.

3. GfK NOP conducted a study on Ofcom’s behalf among a UK nationally representative sample of 853 people with home landline phones. Research participants were asked to keep a paper diary to record all those calls they considered to be ‘unwanted’ on their home landline phones across a four-week period (14 January to 10 February 2013). While participants may have classed certain calls as ‘unwanted’, they may in some cases have given prior marketing consent for such calls to be made. As such, it does not automatically follow that all calls recorded during the research were illegitimate or in breach of any laws or regulations in this area

4. This number may include calls made under the guise of market research but actually with the intention of collecting sales leads, also known as ‘sugging’.

5. Top ten categories of products or services most commonly promoted during calls that research participants described as unwanted (where identifiable).

Reason for call Percentage of identified calls
PPI claims 22%
Energy 10%
Market research 10%
Insurance 8%
Pension rebate/refund 4%
Computer maintenance/support 3%
Phone/broadband 3%
Charity 3%
Home improvements i.e. kitchen/windows 3%
Accident claims 2%

*Remaining 32% includes debt collection/competition wins/banking and credit cards and others

6. The figures represent the types of nuisance calls as a proportion of the nuisance calls received during the research period. The study uses the following classifications:

Silent call
This is when a consumer answers the telephone but there is only silence on the line.
Recorded message  This is where a consumer hears a recorded message telling them about a product or service.
Live marketing call
A call centre agent is at the end of the line when the consumer answers, who then tries to sell a product or service.

7. ‘Computer support or maintenance’ calls may relate to purported offers to correct or repair alleged computer errors, faults or viruses. These types of calls may include scams to gain access to a consumer’s computer and gain knowledge of passwords and security information.

8. Section 130 of the Communications Act 2003 gives Ofcom the power to impose financial penalties on parties found to have ‘persistently misused an electronic communications network or electronic communications service’. In September 2010, Parliament approved an increase in the maximum financial penalty available to Ofcom to use to combat persistent misuse from £50,000 to £2m. Ofcom has an ongoing monitoring and enforcement programme that seeks to address consumer harm from ‘persistent misuse of an electronic communications network or electronic communications services’. Where informal enforcement action is not effective, Ofcom may proceed to an investigation and notification and/or fine. This has resulted in action against 12 companies to date resulting in financial penalties.

9. The Network Interoperability Consultative Committee (NICC) is a technical forum for the UK communications sector that develops standards for public communications networks and services in the UK.

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