What is the ongoing value of TPS and its future role?

IPS interviews John Mitchison, Head of the Telephone Preference Service (TPS)

IPS members have their phone numbers automatically registered with the TPS and many tell us they see a rapid reduction in unwanted sales and marketing calls. However, some members feel disappointed that the TPS can’t stop all nuisance and scam phone calls.

To get a better understanding on what the TPS does and how it works, we sat down with John Mitchison, Director of Policy and Compliance at the Data & Marketing Association (DMA) which is contracted to run the TPS by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

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Can you tell us a bit about how the TPS got started?

Direct mail through your letter box was rampant in the 1980s and many people wanted a way to stop it, so the DMA started the Mailing Preference Service (MPS). It has been really successful and benefits both consumers and genuine organisations sending direct mail.  If you don’t want unsolicited direct mail you just sign up to the MPS to stop it, and the direct mail companies save money by not sending mail to people who won’t open it.  (IPS members just log in to My IPS and add your address to be automatically registered)

Similarly, telephone marketing took off In the mid 1990s and there were soon a lot of complaints from consumers saying ‘I don’t like being hassled on the phone by salespeople’.  So the DMA thought, ‘let’s do the same thing again’.  They created a database of telephone numbers and launched the TPS in 1996.

A lot of the organisations making sales calls (eg energy or home improvements) really didn’t like TPS, as cold calling was central to their whole business model.  To start with it was not used very often.  But it all changed in 1999 when the government included it in the consumer protection regulations (called PECR) and gave it to OFCOM to look after.  TPS became an official government-backed service.

OFCOM put the job of running and maintaining the TPS out to tender and the DMA won it because they already knew it so well.  OFCOM later handed over to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The TPS list of numbers grew massively from around 2008 when BT started recommending it to their customers.  There was another spike in registrations in 2012 due to the explosion of PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) claims calls.  Some of those claims companies were very ‘hard-sell’ and relentless, so the ICO faced pressure to start fining people, but their powers had been limited until then.

So what changed?

The amount they could fine rogue companies changed.  Maximum fines went from £50,000 to £500,000 and that got people to start taking the rules more seriously.  The government went on to make company directors personally liable and that also made a big difference.

The TPS has generally been popular, but consumers were hoping that all unwanted calls would stop, so it’s good for me to able to tackle that issue in interviews like this.

The truth is that TPS is not a call blocking system.  There is still no way we can prevent somebody from dialling your number and getting through.  The TPS is a database of telephone numbers.  Companies that make sales and marketing calls have a legal obligation to screen their numbers against our database before starting a calling campaign.  Once you’ve been registered on the TPS file for twenty-eight days, you know that a company that calls you without your permission is breaking the law.  If you report them they can be fined heavily.  The ICO did a lot of work getting the law changed, and they have official backing to be more vigorous in implementing fines.   We get around 3,000 complaints a month now, which is way down on the 11,000 we were getting at the height of PPI.

TPS & ICO co-operation

We at TPS act on every single complaint and do the first round of investigation to assess if there’s a specific company we attach to the number.  We then alert the ICO’s investigation team.

Say, a company makes a thousand calls to TPS numbers and maybe five of those people complain.  It’s not many, but it can be indicative of a bigger problem.  The ICO ask suspect companies for all of their outbound calling data and then screen it against the TPS.  Those five complaints can often lead to finding that a company dialled 100,000 numbers, only 50,000 of which were registered on TPS.

Members of the TPS team will go to court and support the ICO as witnesses in enforcement cases against rogue callers.  Our people go armed with detailed reports about how the data is collected and what happens to it and it has proved been very successful in court.

So, overall I feel that the TPS is helping to combat nuisance calling.

The big picture on unwanted calling

I can dial any telephone number anywhere in the world.  So can any business.  That freedom is part of the appeal and one of the legal obligations of the licensed telecoms providers.  With that openness in mind, it’s really important for people to understand is that the TPS is not a call blocking system.  It can’t block ALL numbers.

So, if your number is registered with the TPS and you get an unwanted call it’s likely from a company that chooses to ignore TPS and are blatantly breaking the law.  Nobody who makes telephone calls for a living is unaware of TPS!  They know what they’re doing.  So you should ask yourself:  “Do I really want to do business or spend any time on the phone talking to somebody who knows they’re breaking the law by calling me?”

The TPS is also a good way of spotting scams although it isn’t directly designed that way.  Scammers who make calls aren’t going to check numbers on the TPS.  They are not going to give away their location or tell you where to come and get them or anything like that.  If you ask them if they checked on the TPS, it won’t take long for you to confirm that there is something dodgy going on.  They also get irritated if you tell them now is not a convenient time and ask them for a number for you to call them back.

ICO Complaints

There are three types of calls that get split out on the ICO’s complaint figures.  They are SMS/text messages, recorded calls and live calls.

An SMS message is not that intrusive because you don’t have to really do anything.  You can ignore it or delete it or, ideally, report it to the 7726 reporting service.

If a recorded marketing message comes through I can usually tell instantly that it’s not legitimate and just put the phone down.

Live calls, with a person on the end of the phone trying to engage in a conversation, can be a lot more difficult and upsetting when they are trying to mislead you.  I tell people that there’s no need to feel bad about the person on the other end of the phone, as soon as you realise it’s not legitimate, for whatever reason.  We Brits are too nice sometimes.  You don’t have to be rude or shout or anything like that.  You can just quietly hang up.  If you say something like, “I’m going to hang up now” they’ll almost certainly counter with something and it gets harder to end the conversation, so don’t warn them.  It’s not being rude, it’s just dealing with it in the best way. It certainly won’t be the first time they’ve been hung up on the other end of the phone.

Live calls are actually the smallest volume of nuisance calls that happen right now, because it’s obviously much cheaper to make recorded calls or to send people a text, but live calls tend to be the best way to engage people in a conversation and potentially lure them into a scam.

Who are the TPS?

We have a team in London, and another in Sunderland, who are there purely to answer consumers’ queries to complement the website.  Of course, people call about all kinds of things and, technically, our people are only supposed to phone about TPS issues, but they’ll phone and talk about scams or why and how phone numbers are ‘spoofed’ and so on.  We’re able to provide advice to consumers on all those kinds of questions, and are more than happy to do so.  Although it’s not possible to put everything in one place, because all of these things are handled by different agencies, if somebody comes to us we will always endeavour to direct them to the right place.

Why is it so confusing for consumers?

We appreciate that the legislation is quite confusing for anybody who isn’t looking at it every day.   If you want to make a complaint, you would complain directly to:

In time it would be great if a ‘one stop shop’ could be created and of course things are changing with the government’s plan to replace Action Fraud.

So what about the future and ways of using technology to combat nuisance callers from outside of the UK?

I know Ofcom is working with the telephony and number providers to develop a national number database, something that doesn’t really exist at present.  It’s not ready yet, but it should help track the rogue callers when it’s completed.   More widely, there are new technologies and techniques that will be available when all the old ‘copper wire’ phone network is completely replaced with fibre, which is due to happen by 2025.  Then it should be possible to attach information to each telephone call which will help us track miscreants to identify genuine numbers that are actually supposed to be making telephone calls.

Do you have any final thoughts or advice for IPS Members?

TPS works!  It’s completely free for consumers and your number will remain on the file until it is cancelled by the telephone service provider.  Any company that values its customers and takes any notice of the law complies with the rules.

People that sign up to TPS will see a huge reduction in nuisance calls, and they will know that any sales or marketing call received from a company that they don’t know or didn’t request is likely to be illegal.

You can complain about calls you were not supposed to receive on our website and we encourage people to do this, the ICO are very good at taking action against nuisance callers and their investigations are driven by the complaints we receive.

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