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Ofcom imposes new rules on silent callers

Concludes that it was right all along

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Ofcom's consultation on silent calling is over and the regulator has concluded that it was right about almost everything, so companies now have four months to comply with the new rules.

These rules (pdf) are almost identical to those presented for consultation in June, but for some clarifications and a fixed typo or two. The regulator has also extended the compliance period from two months to four. So by February 2011 silent calls should be cut significantly, which is good as complaints about them are on the rise.

Ofcom received 6,500 complaints about silent calling in 2009, but has already clocked up 6,800 in 2010, demonstrating that the problem is getting worse. Silent calls come from computer systems which either mistakenly identify the callee as an answer-phone, or connect the call in the mistaken expectation that a call-centre drone will be available by the time the call is picked up.

From February that will have to happen within two seconds of the callee speaking - the start of salutation. Some companies pushed for the clock to start at the end of the salutation, pointing out that a longer greeting is a useful way of identifying an answer phone. But Ofcom was unmoved and requires that within two seconds a human is on the line or a recorded announcement is played.

The contents of that announcement have been tided up - it must contain the name of the company, and a phone number the callee can use to opt out of future calls, and can't contain any advertising.

Once a user has received that, or been identified as an answer phone (accurately or erroneously), the company isn't allowed to call again that day unless that second call is made by a walking/talking human being rather than a machine. The original proposal said "within 24 hours", but Ofcom agreed to change the wording to clarify that one call is permitted per calendar day.

Debt collection companies complained that they should be exempted, and that if they weren't then it would place customers at risk of running up greater debts, but Ofcom wasn't convinced.

The regulator was also unconvinced by suggestions that automatic answer-phone detection (AMD) should be banned entirely, saying that it was still a useful technology despite being imperfect. The industry argued that Ofcom's figures for false positive identification assumed every one was generated by a machine, and that this failed to take into account the average intellect of centre staff, who are more than capable of making the same mistake - which bodes well for the Turing test but worries us slightly.

Companies have until 1 February 2011 to implement the new rules, and face significant fines if found to be in breach of them. We've yet to receive a silent call backed up with a recorded announcement telling us who to blame. Perhaps because we're on the Telephone Preference Service, so the only sales calls we get are from companies outside the UK, who aren't subject to Ofcom's rules or the fines that are intended to ensure compliance. ®

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