Record year for Ofcom fines

A new Ofcom report has revealed the range of enforcement action that the regulator has taken to protect listeners, viewers, telecoms customers and people using the airwaves.

Ofcom’s first Enforcement Report reveals that during 2008 Ofcom opened new consumer protection investigations to protect people from silent calls, misselling and undesirable sales practices. It fined companies who broke the rules on silent calls over £100,000 and took formal action against companies who broke the rules on transferring broadband providers.

Ofcom uses a range of legal powers to take enforcement action. Often it opens investigations after being alerted to issues by the public. In 2008, Ofcom’s Central Operations team handled around 20,000 enquiries a month, some of which were referred to Ofcom’s three main investigations teams, as complaints from the public are an important source of evidence for enforcement action. Consumer protection cases now account for over half of the investigations opened, compared to 10% in 2004.

During 2008 Ofcom opened 17 investigations and three enforcement programmes covering both competition and consumer issues.
Financial penalties totalling £121,000 were imposed on four companies for making silent and abandoned calls including fining one company the maximum £50,000.

Silent calls can be very frightening, particularly for people who live alone. In the vast majority of cases, these silent calls are not made by pranksters, burglars or stalkers. In fact they’re the work of a machine, called a predictive dialler, used by call centres to phone large numbers of people. These can generate more calls than the call centre can deal with. Ofcom’s rules state that these must not exceed a certain number and that operators must put other safeguards in place, like pre-recorded messages.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director for Help the Aged and Age Concern, said: “Silent calls cause anxiety and distress to those on the receiving end. We are very pleased that Ofcom has taken action to reduce the incidence of these calls and has produced an informative guide telling people how they complain.”

Ofcom intends to take further action against companies who break the rules on silent calls during 2009.

Ofcom chief executive, Ed Richards, said: “Our report highlights the firm action we have taken to protect consumers. Wherever it is necessary we will take action to endure the public interest is met.”

Ofcom also issued a record amount of broadcasting financial sanctions for breaches of the Broadcasting Code. The Code is designed to protect people who watch television programmes and listen to the radio. Ofcom issued fines totalling almost £7.83m during the year for breaches of the Code. Ofcom conducted raids and prosecuted 28 criminals for illegal use of the airwaves, which can cause interference to communications systems used by safety-of-life services, as well as licensed radio stations.