By Andy Curry, Enforcement Group Manager.
Nuisance calls – and our action to stop them – are again in the headlines today. The government has moved to stop marketing companies from hiding behind ‘caller withheld’ numbers, while we’ve announced that we’ve issued more than £2million in fines over the past year.
But what are the facts behind those headlines?
Fines aren’t only for nuisance calls
While it’s nuisance calls that get the most attention, our action is much broader. One of the 19 penalties we issued was linked to emails (the Telegraph group), and one to postal marketing (Pharmacy 2U sold customer info to marketers). Another two were for text messages (Help Direct UK and UKMS Money Solutions responsible here).
More action to stop calls that play recorded messages
Those marketing calls that play recorded messages are probably the most frustrating of all, and they’re also often unlawful. The rules state that companies need a person’s specific consent before making this type of call, and where they don’t have that, we can act. Six of our last eight fines have been for recorded calls, including a record penalty to the company behind 40,000,000 of them.
Few companies actually pay up
Our experience is that the problem end of this sector is characterised by small marketing companies that pay little heed to the rules. Setting up an operation that can make millions of calls is unfortunately surprisingly easy, with little outlay required on equipment, premises or staff. It can literally be a cottage industry, and as these companies are typically limited companies, directors can be quick to look to liquidation as a way out of paying fines.
But it’s not as easy as that. The UK has a strong insolvency regime and the ICO is committed to pursuing money owed on behalf of taxpayers and those millions of people who have been bothered by unwanted calls.
Even companies which have stopped trading or try to get themselves struck off cannot escape because we use all means available to us to pursue the debt.
Of the 19 fines we’ve issued since April 2015, three have been paid (fines worth £165,000) and one is being paid in instalments. Four firms still have time to pay because they are still within deadline or the deadline has only recently passed and two companies are appealing their fine (FEP Heatcare Ltd and UKMS).
That leaves nine others that have gone into liquidation or have not paid, which we’re actively pursuing.
We’ll continue to chase these fines aggressively through the courts and work with insolvency practitioners. And while, in some respects, it marks a frustrating end to our investigations it’s worth noting that when nuisance call companies go out of business, they stop making calls. And that’s a successful outcome.
But we’re not stopping there. We’re keen to see the government offer stronger powers to hold the directors themselves responsible for the law breaking, for example.
Fines are not the only way
It’s expected that the civil monetary penalties we issue will hit the headlines, and that’s no bad thing: they send out a clear message to other companies of what to expect if they break the rules too.
But fines aren’t the only way we make sure the law is being followed. We work with companies that want to get it right, for instance, and we publish detailed guidance on how to make sure marketing calls are being made within the law. And we’re investigating the trade in personal details that fuel the nuisance call industry too, learning more about the lists of phone numbers being sold, often without people’s permission.
|Andy Curry heads the team that enforces the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. As well as cracking down on nuisance calls, his team investigates companies behind unwanted texts and emails and takes action when needed.|