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Friday, 8 October 2010

BBC Watchdog - “false claims”, “bodge jobs” and “poor service”

An item broadcast on BBC Watchdog on Thursday 7 October (viewable here) covered the issue of Silent Calls, along with other related and unrelated issues.

The focus on this issue of public concern was welcome, but many of the points made and the explanations given were factually incorrect and misleading. I do not agree with the support for the practice of making Silent Calls which was offered, nor the proposed "consumer" remedy. Despite the many mistakes made in the presentation of the piece, I have to assume that the comments from the contributor and editorial comments from the presenter were well founded and considered, rather than misguided, and so I have to declare my total opposition.

I believe that all Silent Calls are unnecessary and unacceptable. Responsible companies, such as BT and British Gas, should simply stop making them as a matter of policy.

Ofcom should firstly withdraw its support for use of obsolete (AMD) technology which it knows to be a major cause of Silent Calls - it currently advocates use of this technology "in the public interest".

Ofcom should then cease tolerating the practice of habitually making Silent Calls and treat every case that comes to its attention as "Persistent Misuse of a Telecommunications Network or Service". Every culprit should be initially served with a Notification of Misuse. Where resources permit and the scale of likely misuse warrants further investigation, this should be followed by the possible imposition of an enforceable requirement to cease the practice and a proportionate penalty for breaches of such a requirement.

Contrary to the position adopted by Watchdog and its contributor, endorsement of the Ofcom policy, I totally oppose the suggestion that people should individually opt-out from receiving information about products and services because they do not wish to receive Silent Calls, whilst this unacceptable practice continues. It is right that they are made aware of the option to opt-out (if properly explained) and that respect for that right should be enforced, but this is not the way to stop Silent Calls being made. Killing off telemarketing by those who have high standards and respect regulations simply puts people out work, stifles the domestic economy and drives the industry into the hands of those who operate outside the law.

My complaint to Watchdog

I have written to Watchdog pointing out a number of specific errors in the piece and offering clarification on certain points. An extract from my message, addressed to the producer of the item, with some modest re-drafting, follows.

(The text of part of the item is published in the Watchdog blog.)

Automatic generation of telephone numbers is performed by those who provide lists to telemarketing companies, but the Silent Calls which can result from their number scanning operations are not the ones that you were focussing on. They are a quite separate, and fairly rare, issue.
The Silent Calls we experience are caused in two ways:
οFirstly, when more automatically dialled calls than expected are answered and so there is no agent available to pick up the call.
οSecondly, when technology designed to detect the clicks and whirrs of a mechanical answering machine (although slightly refined) mistakes a human being for a machine and hangs up after a period of silence. As well as these, sometimes people think the silence is going to continue and hang up before the call gets passed to an agent anyway.
The piece failed to explain that Ofcom tolerates both of these types of Silent Call, subject to additional conditions.
οThe first type is acceptable, so long as 33 times as many "non-silent" calls are made on the same day.
οThe second type is acceptable (when the machine gets it wrong). From February next year Ofcom will start to regard cases where two such calls are made to the same person on the same day as unacceptable. These "repeat silent calls" will have to be spaced out one per day per person. (Cases where the period of silence at the beginning of every call is taken to indicate that nobody will ever speak are not regarded as being Silent Calls!)
Not one complaint or "own initiative investigation" by Ofcom since 2007 has led to any determination that anyone is engaged in "persistent misuse of the telecommunications network", the basis for Ofcom to issue a public Notification Of Misuse, impose an enforceable requirement to cease the practice and perhaps impose a penalty.
Ofcom has not recently been "granted new powers". The recent increase to the maximum possible penalty is meaningless if Ofcom finds that all of the Silent Calls being made fall within its "tolerance policy".
Both BT and British Gas claim to be complying with the Ofcom tolerance policy. This could however mean that they, like others, are making millions of Silent Calls. There was no suggestion that they are failing to comply, indeed it was specifically stated that BT was making one Select Call per day - exactly what is demanded by the latest revision to Ofcom's policy.
Neither of these companies have anything to fear from the possibility of a greater penalty, their Silent Calls are "Ofcom-approved".
Why did nobody ask them how many Silent Calls they are making? - The public needs to understand exactly what the Ofcom policy means in practice.
If one understands call centres, it is clear that there is no need or justification for making any Silent Calls. Ofcom should be stopping them, not tolerating them.
It is wrong to say that "Ofcom can't look into individual complaints". It can, but now chooses not to, after having done so only once - in response to my complaint about Kitchens Direct in 2003, which kicked the whole thing off. Since then, Ofcom has been trying to evade addressing the issue properly, in the hope that people will stop complaining; that is why it is still a major problem. Ofcom should be called to account to citizens for what it is doing; this point came out very clearly from the recent parliamentary debate on the issue.
Failure to respect the TPS is NOT a criminal offence. It is a breach of a statutory regulation which may be enforced by the ICO through the civil law.
Ofcom's powers in respect of persistent misuse do not include any authority to impose general regulations, but they do enable specific requirements and penalties to be imposed in particular cases, again through the civil law.
It is totally wrong to say that calls from overseas or from autodiallers are not covered by TPS registration. The way in which the call is generated, or the place where this occurs, is irrelevant. Any company trading in the EU, which either makes or instigates a marketing call is required to respect the PECR.
Ofcom applies its use of the persistent misuse powers on exactly the same basis.
Phonepay Plus has no role in regulating the making of Silent or marketing calls. The content of a call that solicits a call to be made to a Premium Rate Service falls within its remit, but that was not the point being made in the broadcast. The content of all marketing calls is regulated by various bodies.
Many people feel that recorded marketing messages are now the major source of telephone nuisance. Contrary to common understanding, these are totally illegal, regardless of TPS registration. Offering the option to press a button to speak to someone makes no difference. The only circumstances in which it is permissible to play such a message is after explicit consent to receipt of such messages has been given.

Other communications

I have also written to BT and British Gas asking them to confirm that the statements published in the "Watchdog" blog are genuine and that they do make Silent Calls in compliance with the Ofcom policy. I refer them to the demands from parliament that more information about this issue be made available to citizens, including publication of the "current top abuses".

As both are very large companies, it is likely that compliance with the Ofcom policy will place them in this category. I therefore ask each to provide details of the number of Silent Calls they make in any given period.

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