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The harm caused by nuisance calls and text messages

29 October, 2013

More than three million Britons have been left afraid to answer the phone as a result of unsolicited marketing calls or text messages , according to a new report from StepChange Debt Charity.

The charity’s Got their number report and campaign which were launched today (October 29) aim to highlight the potentially serious harm caused by nuisance calls and messages.

The report’s other key findings include:

  • Nearly 8.8 million British adults find unsolicited marketing calls or text messages stressful or they make them anxious
  • Almost 26.3 million British adults have been offered high-interest credit (e.g. payday loans) via unsolicited marketing calls and texts
  • Just over 45 million British adults have received unsolicited marketing calls or texts
  • Six percent of respondents to a stepchange.org website poll said that as a result of a nuisance call or text they had taken out a financial product or service that worsened their financial position
  • 81 percent of respondents to the stepchange.org website poll said they didn’t always know when they’d given consent for their data to be passed on
  • Just over 13.4 million British adults have received a call or text message about debt collection
  • Firms are under no obligation to inform consumers which companies their personal information may have been passed to.

It is likely that almost everyone in Great Britain will have received nuisance calls or text saying things like “claim back thousands”, “write off your debts”, or “get cash now”, for most people these can be dismissed as an everyday inconvenience. But for millions of vulnerable people these calls can lead to serious harm in the form of stress and anxiety, or possibly harmful financial decisions.

Client stories

StepChange Debt Charity has heard many stories of people driven to despair after being bombarded by nuisance calls and texts from firms they’ve never heard of, offering them all manner of services, including potentially dangerous financial products like payday loans and fee-charging debt management.

StepChange client Janie: “It was totally exhausting, very very stressful, my mobile was going off at work, I was getting into trouble for taking personal calls, and there was no respite at home. You’re trying to relax at the end of a working day and phone keeps going off, you’re just hounded and hounded until you give in. It was either give in or get rude. It was just awful.”

For those in financial difficulty these types of calls and messages can leave them vulnerable to making choices that ultimately worsen their situation.

StepChange client Graham: “When you’re as desperate as I was, it’s strangely comforting to know that there was money available no questions asked. The reality of course is that you’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole, and these companies know that”.

Data protection failure 

The charity believes that underlying the widespread problem of nuisance calls and texts is a weak data protection regime and a market for personal information over which consumers have lost control.

Weaknesses in the data protection regime can mean that it is too easy for firms to gain consent to pass people’s personal data on; regulators are both under resourced and do not have sufficient powers to deter bad practice; legislation is confused; and existing consumer safeguards such as the Telephone Preference Service are ineffective.

StepChange Debt Charity response

StepChange Debt Charity’s head of policy Peter Tutton said: “These types of calls and messages are more than just an everyday inconvenience. They risk causing severe stress and anxiety for vulnerable consumers, as well as potentially exacerbating existing mental health problems. For those people in financial hardship the offer of quick and easy cash may be incredibly tempting, but the reality is that they are almost certainly being pushed deeper into trouble.”

“Government, regulators and consumer groups must now come together to establish a comprehensive package of reforms to ensure that consumers are no longer routinely subjected to intrusive, distressing and potentially harmful nuisance calls”.

To investigate the problem further the charity commissioned YouGov to conduct an online nationally representative poll of 2,017 British adults; as well as conducting their own website poll at stepchange.org; and conducted Subject Access Requests on behalf of clients to establish what information companies hold on people and where this information has gone. 

Notes to Editors

1. StepChange Debt Charity calculations based on population figures from the ONS: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-231847
2. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2,017 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 20th - 23rd September 2013.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Contact the StepChange news team on:

Tel: 0207 391 4598

Mobile: 07985 404 153

Email: press@stepchange.org

Follow our press team on Twitter: @StepChange