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When was the last time you took a call on your landline?
For many of you, the answer will be “never again” — because the plague of nuisance calls has caused you to rip the phone line from the wall. Even my colleague Nic Fildes, the Financial Times telecoms correspondent, confesses he has done just that.
Your home phone can be a hotline to fraudsters. For years, I have let the answerphone screen our incoming calls, darting to pick up if I hear my dad saying, “It’s your father calling, not technical support from Microsoft”.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were struck down with the flu. He was so bad, I rang the doctor’s surgery and requested a call back. During the course of the day, our BT landline kept on ringing. But was it the surgery calling back? Fat chance!
Distant voices said they had discovered viruses on our laptop — a well-known scam that can result in fraudsters cleaning out the online bank accounts of the unwary. There were several automated messages from PPI reclaim outfits, so-called ambulance chasers, and a youthful salesperson promising we could “profit from the cryptocurrency craze”. Pensions liberation scams are also rife, many beginning with the seemingly helpful offer of a free pensions review.
This week, the government made a long overdue attempt to redress the balance. It proposes to slap fines of up to £500,000 on the directors of companies making large volumes of unwanted calls. At present, fines can only be levied on the companies in question. Almost half of these have never been paid, as companies simply go into liquidation then rise, phoenix-like, ready to bombard us with yet more annoying calls. However, don’t all plug your landlines back in at once — the new measures will do little to stop cold-calling operations from overseas.
When our doctor finally called back, we nearly missed her. So I resolved to take action. Even though I had nearly lost my voice, I called BT customer services to have a whinge.
Why is it, I croaked, that I am paying handsomely for broadband and line rental yet my line is constantly being jammed by idiots?
There were 3.9bn nuisance calls and texts last year, according to the latest estimates from regulator Ofcom. Nearly two-thirds of Britons regularly ignore their landlines to avoid unwanted calls, according to a separate survey by TalkTalk, which estimates that we fail to answer about 300m calls a year from people we actually want to speak to.
Being registered with the Telephone Preference Service, and diligently ticking the “do not share my data” box when ordering things online has made no difference.
Unplugging the landline could be a quick solution — but why should consumers be forced to pay for a flawed service? Some numbers, such as 0345 prefixes, cost a fortune to dial from a mobile. And what happens if you live in an area with poor mobile reception? Or, like me, if you misplace your mobile at home and can only locate it by calling it from your landline?
The woman at the BT call centre was very sympathetic. She told me about BT Call Protect — a free service that BT claims has stopped 100m nuisance calls. I had never heard of this. It doesn’t work automatically: you will need to log into your online BT account to activate it. I only managed to find the account number and password this week, so I cannot yet say if it has made a difference.
BT claims millions of unwanted calls are automatically set to “junk voicemail”. To access any messages, you dial 1572, but most fraudsters won’t bother leaving one. If you answer the phone to one, you can hang up then dial 1572, and the number will be blocked and added to your blacklist. However, the scam artists of the world are wise to this and usually dial from international or restricted numbers.
To block these, you will need to go into Call Protect’s online settings and set your allowable “call types”. Here, you can bar all withheld numbers, unrecognised numbers and international calls.
TalkTalk has CallSafe, a free call-screening service; Sky has TalkShield. Depending on your provider and phone package, you may have to pay extra to obtain advanced features.
BT charges £6.30 a month — more than £75 a year — for its “anonymous call reject” service which blocks withheld-number calls (they are not sent to a junk voicemail, instead the caller hears a message saying “the person you are calling is not accepting anonymous calls”). This might give peace of mind to those with vulnerable relatives but BT warns that it will also block many legitimate calls from switchboards, such as hospitals, social services and the police.
BT also tried to sell me its new “advanced” home phone for £40 (I know, the cheek!) which has sophisticated call-blocking features that could prevent such calls from being missed. You can also buy “call blocker” devices online that plug into the wall but these won’t work unless you have “caller display” from your phone provider (Ofcom has ruled companies cannot charge extra for this from October).
Serious scam attempts should be reported to ActionFraud but if you are a charitable soul with time on your hands, you may opt to be a nuisance to unwanted callers.
FT reader Stefan Z says he asks “increasingly Monty Pythonish questions”, keeping a loft insulation sales call going for 20 minutes before apologising and saying he had just remembered he lived on the ground floor.
A friend invents surreal accidents that were not his fault (“How funny you should call! A strange thing happened to me just last week . . .”). By wasting their time and money, we could lessen the chances of them getting through to someone more gullible.
Claer Barrett is the editor of FT Money: email@example.com; Twitter: @Claerb
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