Cold calls: how to stop unwanted phone calls

Call centresRelentless sales calls on your home phone are irritating and for some people, a source of anxiety. Why are you getting unwanted calls and how can you put a stop to unwanted cold calls?

Companies using phony, official sounding names are bombarding people with pushy sales calls – even when they have registered to block cold-calls.

Panorama investigated the murky practice and secretly filmed a company involved in accident compensation claims, where employees manning the phones claimed to be from fake organisations such as the 'Industrial Hearing Clinic'.

The programme also reported that households who are signed up to the Telephone Preference Service were still being contacted by salespeople.

The TPS is a central register for companies using cold-call techniques to cross check numbers, so in theory no-one on the register should be contacted.

The law states that if you have told a company you don't want to be contacted, or if you have registered with the TPS, no business can call you (including charities and voluntary organisations). This comes under Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

So why are you still receiving calls?
It may be that you have already agreed for some companies to contact you, for example if you ticked a box giving consent for a company to send you marketing material. If you're unhappy about being contacted, ask to be removed from their calls list.

But some companies are simply flouting the rules and don't bother paying for access to the TPS register.

Scammers, as you would expect, clearly don't care about the law and are harder to trace and block. They will continuously change numbers or use an anonymous number to remain undetected.

Are all nuisance calls a scam?
Not in all cases - nuisance calls might come from genuine companies. Big businesses have been investigated for making silent calls – where a bunch of numbers are dialled automatically but there aren't enough operators to handle the calls, so there's only silence when you answer the phone.

In April, HomeServe was fined £750,000 by Ofcom for silent and abandoned calls to potential customers. Four years ago Barclaycard was fined £50,000 - the previous maximum penalty - for similar reasons. In autumn 2010 the maximum fine for silent calls was increased to £2 million.

However, many calls are also fraudulent. One specific con involves a caller pretending to be from Microsoft who wants to help fix a problem on your computer. They don't actually know what type of computer you have (and anyone who uses an Apple computer will already know such a call is dodgy).

After convincing you to download software, which gives the caller remote access to your computer, the caller "fixes" the fictional problems and charges a fee.

A victim of this scam who spoke out on Panorama was bullied into paying £120 and then had to pay a genuine company to make her computer secure again.

Companies who breach the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations can now be fined up to £500,000 by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

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Companies pretending to be the TPS
The TPS has warned people to steer clear of dodgy callers claiming to be from its organisation, but who then try to charge you for registering. The TPS is a free service.

What can you do?
Once you have registered with the TPS (allow around 28 days for it to take effect), watch out for any small print or boxes to tick on documents that confirm you don't want to be contacted further.

If the calls are still coming in and marketers ignore requests to be taken off their contacts list, note the date and time and ask for the name and number of the company. Report whatever information you have to the TPS or the ICO, which investigate complaints. Otherwise feel free to hang up the phone.

The ICO introduced an online form for people to report any concerns in March this year and is using it to help trace those companies breaking the law.

You can also contact your telephone company, which might offer an 'anonymous call rejection' service, blocking calls from withheld numbers. However, be aware that you could end up blocking calls from numbers you do want to hear from, including public services such as the police force, hospitals and fire brigades.

There may also be a monthly fee for using this service. However, it's still worth contacting your phone provider, as they can offer advice and may be able to trace the number.

More useful details can be found on the Ofcom website, along with the following contact numbers for your telephone company:

Ofcom Advisory Team – 0300 123 3333
BT Nuisance Call Advice Line – 0800 661 441
Carphone Warehouse/Talk Talk – 0870 444 1820
Kingston Communications – 01482 602 555
Post Office – 0845 600 3210
Sky – 08442 414 141
Tiscali – 0871 222 3311
Tesco – 0845 300 7080
Virgin Media's Sensitive Information Bureau – 0800 953 3333
Telephone Preference Service – 0845 0700707

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