David Hickson's Silent Calls Victim Blog

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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Silent Calls from overseas

A number of people ask me about Silent Calls made from overseas, so here are some relevant comments. These include points on wider topics.

The law

The statutory provisions prohibiting Silent Calls, marketing calls to those registered with the TPS and recorded message marketing calls apply to the organisation responsible for the call. This could be a company that falls within the relevant jurisdiction but uses an overseas call centre of its own or engaged under contract.

The place from where the call is actually made does not affect the requirement to comply with the law.


Because the caller line id (CLI) from some overseas administrations may be unreliable, BT tends to not provide it to the person called - it is presented as simply "International". This means that on receiving a Silent Call one has no direct way of identifying the originator.

I personally place no reliance on CLI as it does not actually identify the caller. It only gives a telephone number that may be shared between many users of a call centre or may be false or unobtainable anyway. I also support the legal right for any caller to withhold CLI if they choose.

When making a voice telephone call, I believe that the caller has a duty to declare who they are (or who they represent if it is a business call) and the reason for their call as soon as it is answered. Any failure to do so, whether the call is Silent or not, should be treated as a misuse of the telephone network.

Call Tracing

For those experiencing regular calls from unidentified callers the Nuisance Calls Bureau of their telephone service provider may place a trace facility on the line. This enables the identity of the caller to be recorded by the telephone company so that it can be used as evidence by those bodies empowered to investigate illegal activity. This includes Ofcom (for Silent Calls) and the ICO (for breaches of the PECR).

The information recorded may be different to that revealed to the recipient. It includes a CLI that is withheld by the caller or suppressed (e.g. by BT if from overseas).

To identify the caller it is necessary to engage the assistance of the telephone company that owns the number and perhaps an agent to whom it has been issued. This is generally offered on a reciprocal basis or may be compelled by those conducting formal investigations.

Data protection law prevents any of this information from being released to the person called, but not to the relevant authorities. Experience (in my case with BT) shows that the NCB will be as helpful as they can without breaking the law, e.g. confirming if two traces gave the same result and if the caller is regularly the subject of traced calls.

Whilst this process may be less reliable in the case of overseas calls, and cannot be guaranteed to be effective, it is certainly not a complete waste of time. As ever, one has to persuade the NCB to take the case on, as they have limited resources.

Where the authorities can be persuaded to act properly using their powers it can be highly effective. Two traced Silent Calls to me from Kitchens Direct led to an Ofcom investigation that revealed 1½ million Silent Calls in a three month period. That was however back in 2003; Ofcom has not conducted an investigation from a citizen's complaint since 2006. That investigation led to Kitchens Direct being permitted to continue making that number of Silent Calls so long as they made enough completed calls to keep the percentage below 5%; the only subsequent change by Ofcom is that the 5% is now 3%.

International co-operation

There is some degree of co-operation between authorities in different countries, as none are keen to be branded as being responsible for international nuisance calling. This has been effective in the past and should be encouraged.

I reject the suggestion from some (e.g. the DMA) that telephone misuse is simply a problem that exists from overseas. There are exceptions, but most of those who are trying to contact us are looking to do business with us in the UK, even if they find it cheaper to use an overseas call centre.

We must remember that no useful business objective is achieved by a call from someone with whom one cannot do business. Every business caller will have to declare who they are at some point - that is the stage at which efforts to cause them to stop their improper practices can commence.

Silent Calls and the other categories of misuse referred to here are invariably carried out on a large scale. It may be that investigations and action have to begin from a small number of cases and will require intense and co-ordinated activity by many parties, some of whom may be overseas. That is however how one may act to deal with the problem.

The difficulties of dealing with Silent Calls and other types of nuisance from overseas highlights the fact that the present approaches being followed by Ofcom and the ICO are ineffective.

It is not acceptable to simply aggregate incomplete complaint data so as to suggesting that nothing can be done.

Neither is it acceptable to threaten higher penalties to suggest that a stronger line is being taken, when this is nothing more than a substitute for effective action.

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