Greg Wright: Cold calling the elderly is not a '˜nuisance' but a nightmare. What are MPs going to do?

EVIL can assume many forms.

Nuisance calls to the elderly must be a criminal offence, says Greg Wright. Do you agree?

For East Yorkshire’s Margaret Whitaker, a longstanding reader of this newspaper, “evil” is the only word that can be used to describe callers who have reduced her to tears and made her feel anxious inside her own home.

Her plight – and that of thousands of others – must shame our MPs and regulators into action. Ms Whitaker has been driven to distraction by what she describes as “cruel monsters who prey on the old and infirm”.

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These “salesmen” are one of the greatest scourges of modern times. But, with our policy-makers pre-occupied with Brexit, there’s a real danger that scandals on our doorstep will simply be overlooked.

Our elected representatives have a moral duty to ensure that the victims’ voices are heard. They must devise a tougher regulatory framework to catch and punish those who harass the elderly. If they don’t, they will be betraying honest citizens like Ms Whitaker who find these callers a scourge.

“Nuisance” is too tame a word to describe them.

Ms Whitaker, who is profoundly deaf, said: “The other day, after another couple (of nuisance calls), I started to shake and was feeling so ill that I rang Age UK and a lady listened to my sobs and actually called me “darling” several times!

“I have many folk trying to help me in my declining years, all wonderful people, and as I don’t have a phone that shows who is calling, I am afraid of missing someone important so I give up what I’m doing and, clinging on to furniture, scramble my way to the phone, to find it is just another horrible fake person.

“Instead of trying to relax and not worry or be anxious, I am made neurotic and even frightened by these unfeeling inhuman beings. I think I’ve already written to my MP and, like junk mail, there’s nothing he can do.”

Really? Nothing our policy-makers can do? Then why did we elect them?

Isn’t this precisely the type of scandal that merits a debate in Parliament, and perhaps a Private Members’ Bill to include much tougher penalties for the dubious business people behind this evil, manipulative behaviour?

Another reader of The Yorkshire Post, David Simpson, who is also retired, kept a log of the dozens of nuisance calls he had received over the course of a month.

When I studied this log, I was struck by the sheer persistence and lack of compassion displayed by these callers.

I tried to imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of this onslaught. Your heart must race every time the phone rings; suddenly your home no longer feels your own.

When Mr Simpson tried to check out the callers’ credentials, he found that the companies behind them seemed to have vanished into quicksand.

Some of the callers were asking for strangers, or people who may have lived at the address years ago.

He said: “Anything that can be done to put a stop to this plague upon society would be welcome – after all, what do we pay our MPs for? If I remember my history lessons correctly, and admittedly they were 70 years ago, part of their duty is to protect the citizens of the country.      

“In blunt Yorkshire terms, these calls are a damn nuisance and the sooner they can be terminated the better.”

The scale of this scandal is breathtaking.

Around 80 per cent of British adults have had to deal with nuisance calls, according to research from Which? A large proportion of the victims will be elderly people, who are more likely to be in during the day when the callers decide to strike.

There are, of course, ways of making it harder to be targeted.

You can register with the Telephone Preference Service – it’s free and it allows you to opt out of any unsolicited live telesales calls.

You can also talk to your phone provider to see what privacy services and call-blocking services are available.

You’ve also got the option of complaining to the Information Commissioner’s Officer. It enforces the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 which covers the way organisations make live direct marketing telephone calls.

The plight of victims like Ms Whitaker proves that the current regulatory regime isn’t working. Our law-makers wouldn’t tolerate a rise in street crimes, so why should we turn a blind ear to the menace of nuisance callers?

We need a new law, which must be drafted after lengthy and informed debate in Parliament, which makes nuisance calling a criminal offence.

There’s also a compelling economic case for action.

Financial fraud in the first 
half of 2016 increased by a quarter to £399.5m according to new figures from Financial Fraud Action UK.

FFA UK, which is responsible for leading the fight against fraud in the UK payments industry, has urged customers to be vigilant when they receive unsolicited phone calls.

Many of the nuisance callers who hound our elderly are crooks who want to commit fraud on a vast scale. The callers know that if they persist, some vulnerable people will cave in.

A bully never tires of seeking victims.

Greg Wright is the deputy business editor of The Yorkshire Post.