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Tech’s role in the UK’s fight against nuisance calls

Written by Chris Peregrine, Head of Product Management at DigitalWell

The UK boasts one of the most advanced tech ecosystems in Europe, enjoying strong digital infrastructure, research excellence, access to investment, and supportive government policies. Despite this, the country is facing a nuisance call epidemic.

While phone scam and fraud has become rampant across nearly every country, for the UK it’s become a particularly pervasive problem, currently attracting the highest proportion of fraud call rates in the continent.

Alongside a hefty dose of unsolicited spam calls, common scams relate to cryptocurrency trading, sales of fraudulent mobile phone devices and contracts, and scammers impersonating legitimate businesses. The result is not only costing people and companies money, but is degrading consumer trust in the phone call and tarnishing businesses’ reputations. All of this poses significant challenges for regulators in their efforts to protect consumers and maintain a healthy business environment.

Opening the doors for fraudulent activities

Being a tech leader, many may assume the UK’s defences against scam and spam calls would be strong. However, ironically, the country’s access to technological advancements has boosted its vulnerability to nuisance calls. Tech has made it easier and cheaper for scammers and telemarketers to make bulk calls, while the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and automated calling systems allows for mass spamming, making it challenging for traditional regulatory measures to keep up.

The UK was also one of the first European countries to deregulate its telecommunications market back in 1997. While this allowed for increased competition and innovation, it also opened the door for unscrupulous entities to enter the market, leading to a rise in nuisance calls.

In addition, Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, has been perceived across many industries as a “soft touch” regulator, focusing more on promoting competition than strictly enforcing rules against nuisance calls; a leniency that many believe may have encouraged some companies to engage in unlawful or unethical calling practices.

Other factors widening the doors for fraudulent activities, not just in the UK, but worldwide, include major events such as the Covid-19 pandemic. This period saw scammers pose as government entities, healthcare providers, or financial institutions, preying on people’s fears and vulnerabilities. More recently, scammers have been calling consumers about cost-of-living rebates or discounts, impersonating local councils, phone providers, banks, the police, the royal mail, HMRC, courier companies or government organisations such as the department of Work and Pensions. And scammers aren’t just using calls in isolation, but rather forming a clever omnichannel approach to obtaining victims’ money via SMS, web pages and calls.

Addressing the issue while navigating legal & ethical challenges

So what can and is being done to combat scam calls effectively? Telecom operators in the UK are currently collaborating closely with the likes of Ofcom, who has outlined a number of voluntary ‘best practice’ measures to improve consumer protection and enhance the integrity of voice communications.

One notable initiative is the Do Not Originate (DNO) protocol, where businesses can request their telecoms service providers to block calls originating from numbers advertised exclusively for inbound calling. Additionally, efforts are underway to block internationally originated calls with a UK caller ID on their International Gateways – except for legitimate mobile roaming customers – ensuring greater security for voice communications.

Ofcom is also recommending a number of checks before a telecoms operator assigns or sub-allocates numbers to another business such as registered business details, nature of the business, contact details within the organisation, information about the customers’ network and the services provided, checks against various registers such as the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority)  and Phone-paid Service authority for banned individuals or outstanding cases, tribunals or insolvencies. These are similar to the checks Ofcom uses before initially allocating numbers to a Telecoms Operator in the UK. CLI Verification is also under discussion currently and as more operators move to Voice over IP this is becoming more achievable.

These measures aim to strike a balance between protecting consumers and supporting legitimate business operations. Implementing stricter regulations on telemarketers and telecoms firms, however, presents a number of legal and ethical challenges, while balancing consumer protection with business operations requires careful consideration of practical and technical aspects. For example, the diverse range of technologies used by different operators poses obstacles to unified implementation, and unforeseen consequences, such as legitimate calls requiring different caller IDs – contact centres making calls on behalf of various businesses, for example – must also be addressed. Collaborative discussions and white papers between Ofcom and industry stakeholders have been helping navigate these challenges and ensure a fair and effective approach.

Learning from international collaborations & leveraging emerging technologies

International collaborations and best practices play a vital role in the UK’s efforts to combat scam calls. Participation in organisations like BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications)  and the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) allows regulators to share knowledge, engage in consultations, and develop comprehensive solutions. Collaborative events, seminars, and guidance papers contribute to a global cooperative approach in addressing telecommunications fraud.

Emerging technologies, such as AI and machine learning, also hold great potential in identifying and preventing scam calls. These advanced tools can analyse call patterns, voice characteristics, and network data to detect fraudulent activity with higher accuracy. Innovative products designed to combat fraud and enhance security in Voice over IP (VoIP) systems are also in development.

By leveraging technological advancements such as these, being proactive, and complying with legislation while also recognising and addressing the needs of business users today, we hope to see telecom operators stay one step ahead of scammers. Perhaps then, businesses and individuals will regain trust in voice communications once again.

Lisa Baker is Group Editor for the Need to See IT Publishing Group. Lisa writes about HR, Technology, Health, the Environment and Business.
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