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Regulators 'must tackle call firms'
Regulators need to use their powers "far more" to crack down on the companies that make nuisance calls, according to a committee of MPs.
A report from the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee said Ofcom and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) should use their powers more broadly and frequently to punish telemarketers who misuse phone networks and personal contact information.
It rejected suggestions for a single regulator to tackle the problem, saying a more effective outcome would be a single point of contact for consumers combined with more "behind-the-scenes co-operation" between the existing regulators, mainly Ofcom and the ICO.
It found a significant cause of nuisance calls is the unfair and even illegal use of personal data, including gaining a customer's "consent" to receive unsolicited marketing calls in ways that are "at best opaque and at worst dishonest" or trading personal details with companies "lacking in scruples".
The committee said the Information Commissioner "should use his existing powers to tackle them far more, and should not shy from imposing repeated penalties on companies that are repeat offenders".
And it said simple technology such as caller display could help people manage nuisance calls, adding that it "deeply regrets" BT's recent decision to start charging for the service.
It called for the introduction of a similar system to the dedicated "short code" 7726 number for reporting nuisance text messages, saying one was "long overdue" and would provide useful intelligence to regulators.
The committee recommended a single online form and a single help line, advertised prominently on phone bills, where people could easily report nuisance callers.
Committee chairman John Whittingdale said: "Nuisance calls, particularly unwanted marketing calls and text messages, are a source of irritation and distress to millions.
"At best, the underlying scatter-gun marketing approach causes needless interruption to many while providing occasional benefit to a few. At worst, these are unscrupulous and potentially fraudulent practices that can cause great annoyance, anxiety and loss. The challenge is one of curtailing that while at the same time allowing legitimate marketing and unsolicited calls made for good reason.
"We can see some scope for introducing tighter regulations, such as prohibiting nuisance callers from hiding behind a blocked or false number. The threshold for the ICO to take enforcement action under EU regulations should also be lowered.
"However, above all, those companies engaged in marketing must put their own houses in order, in co-operation with bodies like the Direct Marketing Association.
"The regulators - Ofcom and the ICO - need to enforce this by using their existing powers far more, while telecommunication companies like BT should ensure that existing simple technologies that can help people deal with nuisance calls themselves - like caller display - remain free to use."
Peter Tutton, head of policy at debt charity StepChange, said: " While today's report provides a welcome focus on the increasing problem of nuisance calls and texts, it under-estimates the real harm that such unsolicited contacts can have on consumers, particularly those who may be vulnerable.
"Nuisance calls and texts are not merely an everyday irritation, they can lead to stress and anxiety-related issues, while for financially vulnerable consumers the offer of easy credit through payday loans and quick-fix solutions to debt problems can result in harmful economic choices. Our Got Their Number report and campaign found that 3.2 million British adults have been left afraid to answer the phone as a result of unsolicited marketing calls and texts.
"Addressing the problem of nuisance calls and texts requires a range of measures, including greater powers for regulators, greater co-operation between regulators and measures that give consumers control back over their personal data."
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: " We're pleased that MPs are joining our call to cut off nuisance calls which plague the lives of millions of people. We've been pushing for regulators to get more powers and to work together better so they can really crack down on firms who break the rules.
"We urge the Government to act on these recommendations and look forward to seeing its forthcoming action plan for tackling nuisance calls and texts."