Ofcom tightens rules on silent calls

Out-Law News | 01 Oct 2010 | 3:51 pm | 2 min. read

Media and telecoms regulator has revised its rules outlining when it will take action against the companies behind silent and abandoned marketing phone calls, which it says cause consumers anxiety and can even feel like harassment.

The Communications Act gives Ofcom the power to act when a person or company makes persistent misuse of a communications network. The Government has just raised the maximum penalty for such misuse from £50,000 to £2 million.

Ofcom has now published revised guidance on the circumstances in which it will take action against the companies whose silent and abandoned calls constitute persistent misuse of a network.

"Abandoned and silent calls will almost invariably result in consumer harm, which may range from inconvenience and annoyance through to genuine anxiety, particularly for people who live alone," said the document outlining Ofcom's changes. "The type of complaints we receive indicates that older and some disabled consumers are more likely to be adversely affected by silent calls – partly due to the amount of time spent at home, as well as any physical difficulty in reaching the phone."

"Consumer harm caused by abandoned and silent calls can be made worse when individuals receive a number of calls over a short period of time. In the case of silent calls, multiple calls of this nature over a short period may lead to a consumer believing they are being targeted or harassed," it said.

Ofcom said that abandoned and silent calls were common – over 22% of the population have received such a call in the past six months, it said.

Most such calls are the result of systems which dial more calls than call centre staff can handle, or systems which wrongly identify an answered phone as being an answering machine.

"Over 70% [of silent call receivers] had received two or more silent calls in a day, from the same company, often over a period of days or even weeks," said the Ofcom statement. "Our data therefore suggests these ‘repeat silent calls’ are a major cause of consumer harm."

"We believe the majority of repeat silent calls are caused by the inaccuracies of AMD [answering machine detection] technology," it said. "This is because of the recurrent nature of AMD false positives. The way AMD technology works means that if a consumer is mistaken to be an answer machine once, it is likely that this will happen again. This means that they receive repeat silent calls as a call centre continues in its attempts to speak to a consumer."

The new policy, Ofcom said, will now demand that once AMD has identified a line as having an answering machine that number can only be redialled if an agent is on the line to talk to anyone who might answer the phone.

"We hope that this addition will prevent those consumers currently worse affected receiving repeat silent calls from the same company over the course of a day," Ofcom said.

Other changes made by Ofcom to its 2008 policy include changing how call centres can calculate their abandoned call rate; updating the policy on how quickly an automated information message must play; and demanding that calling companies include phone numbers in messages played in the event of an abandoned call.

The method of calculating statistics such as the abandoned call rate is important because Ofcom rules state that silent calls must not make up more than 3% of marketing calls in any given 24 hour period.

See: The new rules (66-page / 407KB PDF)