This article is by LSE Visiting Fellow Claire Milne

Nuisance calls have been a long-running problem that I’ve posted about on this blog several times before. My last post was nearly three years ago, following the 2015 UK General Election, which interrupted use of the £3.5m allocated for this in the March 2015 budget. At the time I suggested that we should consider not just the cost and effectiveness of preventative measures, especially to protect vulnerable consumers, but also the cost of inaction.

In mid-2016 the Scottish Government took up the baton, setting up its own Nuisance Calls Commission, which led to the publication in September 2017 of the Scottish Nuisance Calls Action Plan. The plan identified the need “to conduct an in-depth review of previous actions to ensure that future initiatives, at both a Scottish and UK level, are evidence-based and have real potential to make a difference”. I was pleased to be asked to lead that review, whose report is now available.

Nuisance calls affect only around half of the adult population, and (at least for the majority of calls which are no worse than a nuisance) seem a minor downside of technology, compared with others highlighted on this blog like misinformation or subtle discrimination. But they have important features in common with other downsides, such as:

  • unwarranted use of personal data leading to intrusion, and also concern about its further use;
  • large numbers of practically untraceable wrong-doers (nicely explained for nuisance calls by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)’s short video the data cycle, as well as by missing and spoofed caller identity, which is discussed in the report);
  • a role for network intermediaries in moderating problems, since their services enable access to unwanted communications even though they do not originate them; and
  • the case for a co-regulatory approach based on Ethical Business Practice and Regulation (as set out in the book by Hodges and Steinholtz).

Arguably, beating nuisance calls should be relatively easy by the standards of other tech downside challenges. Understanding this one should have some value in tackling others.

Our review analysed available evidence about nuisance calls in the UK, leading to the following main conclusions:

  • Reasonable estimates of the annual cost to UK landline users of nuisance calls, taking account of phone scams (but not of mis-selling), are in the region of £3bn – around 8 times Ofcom’s previous cost estimate (which looked only at costs of recipients’ time and their own preventative spending).
  • These costs are heavily focused on a small minority of users, who get large numbers of nuisance and scam calls. Roughly 2% of users bear two-thirds of the costs.
  • Taking the past 5 years together, Scottish landline users on average have received more nuisance calls than users in other countries of the UK. The excess is partly caused by the continuation in Scotland of home energy efficiency subsidies, which stopped elsewhere in the UK in mid-2015; with significant volumes of calls offering home improvements coming from Scottish call centres. This finding points to an opportunity for local action in Scotland.
  • Recent reductions in nuisance calls received (from omnibus surveys and complaints, reported by both Ofcom and ICO in their latest Joint Action Plan Update) probably mainly reflect improved nuisance call suppression by network operators over the past year or so.

Ofcom suggests that in 2017, network operators prevented around 500 million unwanted calls from reaching customers (compared with a total of 3.9 billion nuisance calls to landlines; they don’t estimate the number of nuisance calls to mobiles, but it could easily be more than to landlines). This is clearly a step in the right direction. But could the operators go further, without disrupting legitimate calls?

We think they could, and one good route would be to look again at how nuisance call suppression options are presented to customers. Currently, customers must opt in if they are to benefit from personalised nuisance call suppression services (such as are now offered at no extra charge by BT, Sky and TalkTalk), which is likely to lead to low take-up. Alternatively, such services could be switched on by default for all customers, or for certain groups of customers, with everyone having the choice to switch them off. (Some people may prefer them switched off because they suppress wanted automated calls, such as those used by some banks to provide codes needed to authorize online transactions). We suggest that the operators should trial different approaches to customer communications in different parts of Scotland.

This raises the important issue of protection for that 2% who get the most nuisance calls, and suffer the lion’s share of associated detriment.  Evidence suggests that they are disproportionately elderly, lonely, and likely to have growing disabilities. Only some of them have been identified by family, medical or social services as needing support. Could it ever be right to use data about their telephone usage to help to identify them, and hence to target them for support? We raise this issue in the context of recent UK Regulators’ Network (UKRN) discussion about data sharing to identify customers in vulnerable situations (so far, in relation to electricity and water supply).

Scottish stakeholders will pursue this and other practical aspects of implementing the report’s recommendations later in the year. If Scotland can bring down its nuisance calls faster than the rest of the UK, there will be useful learning for all concerned.

This article is by Claire Milne