Most of us are familiar enough with the men with Asian accents and highly improbably English sounding names from the "Technical Support Department of the Windows Operating System", who know nothing about IT that isn't in their script. They’re good for a wind-up and a laugh if you have a bit of time to waste, although they can get very bad-tempered and abusive if you keep them talking too long.
The ones that are most likely these days however are the ones claiming that “our records show” that "you are owed" a sum of money. Or even the newer one that claims that I will lose out on a number of thousands of pounds unless I act now because of "government legislation changes". They're not even real humans at the other end of the line, just computers playing recorded messages. And don't even get me started on double glazing or loft insulation calls from "your government grant adviser".
For those even less compos than me, it can be more than a nuisance of course; it can cost them dearly as well. The nuisance alone is a real issue, as the Consumers' Association have identified today; but the way in which vulnerable people can be persuaded to part with their money is an even more important issue.
TPS and the Information Commissioner's Office are a complete waste of time – all I’ve ever had from them is form letters telling me that the calls will stop within four weeks. But they never do, even if the number being reported is the same one that you’re already reported several times previously.
Any party or politician who wants to stop this nuisance would be doing us all (and me in particular!) a huge favour. They have to do a proper job though.
Alun Cairns earned himself a headline or two with his call for a code of conduct for companies with-holding their number; but his call did make me wonder whether he really understands the nature and extent of the problem as it currently exists. His concerns seemed dated.
Whilst it's certainly true that some companies operating in this game do withhold their telephone numbers, many no longer even bother to do that. They know that we can easily block withheld numbers; and they know that modern phones can block specific numbers, so they simply change the number regularly or use a range of different numbers.
(There’s some interesting psychology there, though. Why would they believe that somebody who has gone to the trouble of blocking their call on one number would be desperately keen to speak to them if they call from another?)
No – if Alun Cairns (or any other politician) wants to stop this widespread and persistent nuisance (I reckon to get 5 to 10 calls per week), they have to do better than a code of practice on withheld numbers. It surely can't be that difficult for the police and telecoms operators to trace the people behind these scams and mount a few more prosecutions. The Telecoms companies don’t help much either – they’re happy to sell the lines and the calls to what are little short of criminal gangs, effectively acting with the complicity of the regulatory authorities.
Criminalising calls which breach the TPS guidelines, prosecuting the perpetrators – that might be a good start, not just in preventing nuisance, but in protecting the vulnerable and the gullible. It would certainly be better than doing as some have done in the past, namely feting the people behind these calls as "successful entrepreneurs".