Ofcom takes action against abandoned and silent calls

18 April 2013

Ofcom today fined TalkTalk £750,000 for making an excessive number of abandoned and silent calls to potential TalkTalk customers in 2011, through two of its call centre operators.1

This follows an investigation as part of Ofcom's monitoring and enforcement programme aimed at reducing harm caused by abandoned and silent calls.

Abandoned and Silent calls

Abandoned calls can occur when a call is made and a person answers the phone, but the caller hangs up. Ofcom's policy is that abandoned calls must include a recorded information message that says who has called them and how they can opt out of future sales calls. A silent call is where the phone rings but there is only silence when the person answers it and no information message is played.

Abandoned and silent calls may be caused by a number of things, including the conduct of agents handling calls, or the use of call centre technologies such as answer machine detection (AMD) technology.

AMD systems work by filtering out calls to answer machines, thereby increasing the time agents spend on live calls. AMD technology can end a call when a person has answered, because it mistakenly identifies the call as being picked up by an answer machine.

Ofcom's investigation

Ofcom's policy sets a limit on the number of abandoned calls that organisations can make.2

Ofcom's investigation found that during one of its telemarketing campaigns, TalkTalk exceeded this limit by a substantial amount on four separate occasions between 1 February and 21 March 2011. TalkTalk also failed to ensure that information messages were played, meaning that consumers received silent calls. As a result, TalkTalk made approximately 9,000 silent and abandoned calls to consumers.

During a separate marketing campaign, TalkTalk did not adequately follow Ofcom's policy by failing to ensure that when using AMD technology to make calls to consumers, it created a reasoned estimate of the technology's accuracy. It also failed to keep adequate records to demonstrate its compliance with Ofcom's policy.

Ofcom's policy also aims to prevent repeat silent calls. If AMD equipment detects an answer machine, any repeat calls to that number on that same day should only be made if a call centre agent is guaranteed to be able to handle the call. TalkTalk failed to abide by this policy on one day between 1 February and 21 March 2011.

Financial penalty

Ofcom has decided to impose a financial penalty of £750,000 against TalkTalk, which is ultimately responsible for compliance with the law regarding 'persistent misuse of an electronic communications network or electronic communications service' and Ofcom's policies on abandoned and silent calls. TalkTalk is therefore ultimately responsible for the actions of the two call centre operators associated with the breach: Teleperformance Limited and McAlpine Marketing Limited.

The fine is payable to Ofcom and passed on to HM Treasury and TalkTalk is required to pay it within 30 days of receiving the penalty notification.

Ofcom's Consumer Group Director, Claudio Pollack, said: "Silent and abandoned calls can cause annoyance and distress to consumers. Companies must abide by the law and Ofcom's policies. If they fail to do so then Ofcom will take firm action.

"Today's penalty sends out a strong message to organisations using call centres that they must comply or face the consequences."

Action Plan

As well as taking enforcement action, Ofcom has developed a five-point action plan to tackle nuisance calls. This includes working with other regulators with responsibilities for tackling nuisance calls and conducting research to get a better picture of the issues.

In addition, Ofcom and the Information Commissioner's Office (who are responsible for regulating nuisance marketing calls and texts) recently sent an open letter to around 200 individuals working in organisations across the marketing industry to remind them of their compliance responsibilities.

A guide for consumers on how to reduce the number of nuisance calls and messages they receive and how to make a complaint is available to download from the Ofcom website.

Further details about Ofcom's investigation into TalkTalk can be found here.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  1. Section 130 of the Communications Act 2003 gives Ofcom the power to impose financial penalties on parties found to have 'persistently misused an electronic communications network or electronic communications services'. In September 2010, Parliament approved an increase in the maximum financial penalty available to Ofcom to use to combat persistent misuse from £50,000 to £2 million.  Ofcom has an ongoing monitoring and enforcement programme that seeks to address consumer harm from 'persistent misuse of an electronic communications network or electronic communications services'. Where informal enforcement action is not effective, Ofcom proceeds to an investigation and notification and/or fine. This has resulted in action against 12 companies to date (including TalkTalk) resulting in financial penalties.
  2. Ofcom's Guidelines set out an "abandoned call rate formula" which provides that the abandoned call rate shall be no more than three per cent of live calls per campaign (i.e. across call centres) or per call centre (i.e. across campaigns) over a 24 hour period. Where users of automated calling systems fail to abide by this three per cent threshold, Ofcom is likely to consider the persistent misuse to be serious.