Communications regulator Ofcom is set to gain the power to fine companies up to £2m for making silent calls — in which automated diallers cause a phone to ring, but no one responds when it is answered.
On Monday, the government raised the maximum fine for silent calls from £50,000 to £2m. The new Ofcom powers will come into effect in the last week of September, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
"Following a debate in Parliament, the fine has been approved," a BIS spokeswoman said.
Ofcom said that the use of automated telephone dialling without providing enough operators to speak, resulting in silent or abandoned calls, can be "unnerving or indeed frightening" for consumers.
"Ofcom welcomes the decision to increase the penalty to £2m for companies breaching rules on silent and abandoned calls," said Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards in a statement. "The increase reflects the potential seriousness of the harm caused to consumers by the unsolicited and intrusive nature of silent and abandoned calls, and enables Ofcom to effectively regulate these activities."
Companies use predictive diallers when they are conducting market research, selling products, trying to collect on debts or contacting existing customers, according to Ofcom. The system automatically dials phone numbers and only connects the call to an agent in a call centre once the phone is answered. However, if no agent is available to pick up, the call will be left silent at that end.
"I am sure that members of the committee will be only too aware of constituents who suffer from silent and abandoned calls and that they therefore agree that we need to do something to ensure that consumers are effectively protected," BIS parliamentary under-secretary Ed Vaizey told a parliamentary committee on Monday, according to Hansard. "The calls are particularly concerning to vulnerable people and the elderly."
Labour shadow minister for consumer affairs Kevin Brennan told the committee that silent calls were the corporate equivalent of "knockout ginger", a game in which children knock on doors and then run away before anyone answers.
"What happens is that companies, operating legally in the United Kingdom, phone up citizens in their homes in the full knowledge that a percentage of those phone calls will result in a nuisance, silent call or an abandoned call leading to a recorded message, rather than to a human being at the other end of the line," said Brennan. "That is part of the business model."
Ofcom told ZDNet UK that it has fined nine companies for making silent calls. The most serious case involved Barclaycard, which was fined the maximum sum of £50,000 in 2008.
The regulator found that between 1 October, 2006 and 10 May, 2007, Barclaycard had made "an extremely high number of silent calls" to people who had no way of knowing who was calling. In addition, Ofcom found that a number of Barclaycard's call centres had no procedures in place to prevent people receiving multiple abandoned calls over a short time period.