18th August 2021

The ICO and Ofcom tackle coronavirus nuisance calls and scams

By Sera Wheble

The COVID-19 pandemic created a perfect storm for scams, with nuisance calls and messages increasing by 27% in just four months at the end of 2020. Through credible caller IDs and threatening messages, fraudsters may claim they’re from HMRC, Amazon, or Test and Trace – all with the intention of stealing information and dupe people out of their money.

According to the latest update to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) / Ofcom joint action plan, despite a drop in complaints at the start of lockdown, reports are now higher compared to 2019. It’s a concerning trend that the ICO and Ofcom anticipates continuing into 2021/2022, especially as fraudsters change tactics and use financial uncertainty as a vehicle to further scam people. But by working collaboratively with telecom companies and other organisations across multiple sectors, the ICO and Ofcom are set to take action against those violating nuisance communication laws.

Here are the key takeaways from their updated 2021 report:

Punishing organisations responsible for nuisance calls

According to the ICO and Ofcom, while there has been a year-on-year decrease of complaints largely due to the first coronavirus lockdown, once companies adapted to remote work, complaints swelled to 45,965 – an increase of 9,841 complaints compared to 2019.

Through data collated from complaints and regulators, Ofcom engaged with six telecoms companies producing high levels of complaints last year, resulting in one organisation withdrawing their sub-allocated numbers.

Monitoring these nuisance calls gives the ICO, responsible for enforcement action, the information needed to charge organisations who violate PECR legislation.

And in 2020, the regulatory body fined organisations in breach nearly £2 million for live marketing calls, unsolicited pension calls and harmful emails – with the largest fine going to an organisation generating over 193 million automated nuisance calls. 

Through updated rules put in place in 2018, Ofcom requires organisations to identify and block suspicious calls and works closely with nine of the UK’s largest telecoms companies to ensure compliance.

Working on a common solution with telecom companies 

In a bid to reduce nuisance calls, Ofcom chairs a strategic working group with telecoms organisations who submit monthly nuisance call data that is then used for enforcement work and shared with chair members.

The purpose of this is so telecoms companies can take all reasonable steps to identify invalid calling line identification (CLI) data and block the calls from being connected. 

The list shared includes: 

  • Long-term protected numbers list: Numbers not yet allocated by Ofcom and are not expected to be allocated anytime soon, making these numbers illegal to use.
  • Blocking list: Numbers proven to have generated a large number of nuisance calls.
  • Do not originate list: Allocated numbers not used for outbound calls and often used by scammers to spoof calls and trick people into thinking the call is from a trusted source. However, VoIP services can make it easier for callers to spoof phone numbers or manually change the number shown to circumvent blocklists.

By sharing these lists, telecom companies can routinely update their systems and block harmful calls. However, it’s not entirely foolproof and requires constant monitoring and communication to further tackle scams.

Tackling harmful scams

Nuisance calls can be distressing and intimidating, especially as fraudsters use more convincing ways to trick people into providing valuable information. 

During the lockdown period, Ofcom and the ICO report a growing number of organisations targeting vulnerable people to communicate misinformation about COVID-19 and deceive people into giving them money.

In response, the ICO investigated 73 organisations, issued three penalties totalling £150,000 and placed 16 organisations under compliance monitoring.

But according to the report, Ofcom expects even more scams to come out in 2021, including a fast-track coronavirus vaccine scam targeting vulnerable people. 

This is why Ofcom and the ICO are working with other regulatory bodies, including the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Home Office and telecoms companies to combat scams and find long-term solutions to block nuisance calls.

Tackling fraud in 2021

2020 was a year of uncertainty and disruption that unfortunately created an environment for fraud to thrive. 

While the new approaches taken by Ofcom and the ICO reduced some of the harmful impacts nuisance calls and scams cause, there is still much work to be done. 

As part of the initiative to drive down scams, Ofcom held a workshop in February 2021 with senior representatives of membership organisations, including Stop Scams UK, to collaborate on technical initiatives aiming to prevent scams from reaching people. 

And for 2021, Ofcom aims to continue to:

  • Protect people against nuisance calls
  • Take action against organisations in breach of PECR
  • Raise awareness of coronavirus scams
  • Implement a scams strategy to tackle telephony-based scams
  • Work across sectors and industries to disrupt and prevent scams

Read the full updated report to the ICO and Ofcom joint action plan to find out how the collaborative efforts across sectors, industries, and regulators are making a positive impact on people throughout the UK.