Unique Preference – Nuisance, Harassment & Phishing Calls
We’ve all received unwanted nuisance, marketing or unwanted sales calls, some probably more than others. Whether you call them cold calls, nuisance calls or in Ofcom’s language “live telesales calls”, the receiving an unwanted telephone call from someone sat in a call centre somewhere to try and sell you something seems to be a fact of life today.
Going back a few years, setting up a call centre operation to make 1000’s of outbound calls was a technically complex and very expensive task; typically involving installation of loads of telephone lines and on-site systems and needing experts from industry suppliers to help make everything work. Although challenging for those wanting to establish such an operation, for the people they were trying to call however it had the distinct advantage of requiring a reasonable degree of investment, expertise and longer term planning. As in telecoms nothing tends to happen quickly, this also tended to mean that calls tended to originate from established or legitimate organisations with a vested interest in adhering to industry guidelines, UK legislation and telecoms regulations to avoid being closed down by industry regulators.
Unfortunately, the rise of internet-based telecoms and the wide availability of affordable telephone systems and associated equipment has removed much of the cost and complexity. It’s also made it possible to call virtually anywhere in the world at exceptionally low cost and removed the geographic link between a phone number and a physical telephone line. Great if you need to setup a business phone system or want to have your New York office receive calls made to a London telephone number, but it’s also made it possible for just about anyone to setup a cheap call centre anywhere in the world and start making calls. Operations seemingly run out of countries with exceptionally low labor costs and often somewhat lax industry regulation are increasingly responsible for many calls being received in the UK.
Ofcom, the UK’s Communications Regulator, have strict guidelines around how organisations may make live telesales calls (calls made by a person rather than an automated recorded message) but it seems that companies operating outside of the country are either not obliged to follow the regulations or simply choose to ignore them.
For example, many households within the UK (including myself) choose to register with the Telephone Preference Service. Being registered is supposed to mean that you should not receive calls from companies who you have not specifically given permission to make marketing calls to you. Companies making live telesales calls are required by legislation to screen their call lists against the TPS and risk enforcement action if they make calls to individuals listed on TPS. Ofcom have some helpful information available around this on their website. TPS is no protection whatsoever however if an organisation either operates somewhere the legislation cannot reach, or simply doesn’t care… Perhaps operating a calling operation from a cheap office – which could literally be anywhere in the world with an Internet connection, yet appear (from the phone number you see when they call) to potentially be based next door. Theoretically, overseas organisations are still supposed to comply with UK legislation – but in practice it’s clear that this isn’t always the case.
Unique Preference – someone must know who they are?
I could go on about this for some time, but instead wanted to focus on one particularly irritating organisation that seems to be in operation at the moment. Calling themselves “Unique Preference”, they seem to have obtained a list of names & phone numbers from somewhere and are persistently calling people trying to extract personal information and phishing for details. They seem to be particularly persistent and appear to believe that if they call you repeatedly (15 calls per day isn’t unheard of) then you’ll eventually give in and answer their questions. The questions start off generic enough but soon seem to start on more sensitive details… How many people in your household, names, dates of birth, bank details, employment details etc.
I wouldn’t like to speculate what they’re intending to use the information for but can’t imagine it’s for anyone’s benefit other than their own!
Calls originate from a number that may look vaguely like a UK number when you glance at it (although usually starting with two extra 00’s) and typically ask for you by name. They’ll quickly reassure you that they’re not trying to sell you anything and will swiftly move on to a “survey”. They tend to hang up as soon as you challenge them, but unfortunately someone else soon calls back to try again.
Needless to say asking to be removed from their list doesn’t work and they evidently ignore TPS so threatening to report them doesn’t help either.
Please whatever you do, do not provide real information to these people!
The numbers they use seem to be all but random in nature, and unsurprisingly don’t connect you to anything if you call them back. Occasionally they may also appear as an international call, or the number won’t be available – but for some reason they still identify themselves on the call as “Unique Preference”. Perhaps this is some sliver of attempt at being legitimate, but unfortunately nothing else they do helps that particular cause.
Here are a few examples that have called us over the last week.
Searching for reports online turns up a few more:
Do you have your own records of numbers? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to the list. It’s probably no use to anyone as they seem to use a different number each time they call but it may be a starting point.
What can we do about them?
Probably not much unfortunately.
Companies operating cold call centres outside of the UK seem to be able to do so without any of the usual safeguards or need to operate lawfully. Apparently, reporting them to the ICO online might help but given that they don’t stick to a few phone numbers, probably don’t operate as a proper business and presumably are based overseas, there’s probably not much the ICO can do.
The calls are also annoyingly difficult to block too. Short of barring any international calls or maybe implementing something sophisticated that needs any incoming call to be from a real phone number before answering, then options tend to be things like screening calls via an answering machine or just not answering.
However, if they continue behaving the same way, not answering just leads to repeated attempts to get you to answer so may make the problem worse.
Think I’ll try and keep them talking next time. Maybe if I waste enough of their time on a call without getting anything useful (or real) they’ll stop calling.. Not too hopeful though 🙁