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The number of nuisance calls and texts reported by UK consumers dropped 20% year-on-year in 2020, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from Quadient has revealed. The figures cover both attempts by legitimate organisations to contact customers and attempts by spammers or scammers to reach individuals. Across the year, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) received a total of 103,733 complaints about nuisance calls and texts – down from 129,354 in 2019. The results show that the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound effect, both on the number and timing of complaints, and the channels used to contact consumers.

The data shows:

  • Complaints dramatically fell at the start of the pandemic: The ICO reports year-on-year dips in the number of complaints about nuisance calls during the first lockdown – down 52% in March, 76% in April and 65% in May, presumably as contact centre closures or even furloughs meant organisations simply couldn’t manage the same volume of calls.
  • Callers and texters redoubled their end-of-year efforts: The number of complaints rose year-on-year by 27% in October, 28% in November and 60% in December. This suggests that, whether legitimate businesses or spammers, organisations had adapted to the pandemic, and this combined with a population trapped at home during the second lockdown created a much higher number of calls and complaints.
  • Nuisance calls down, but nuisance texts up: In 2020, the ICO received reports about 40,472 live nuisance calls (down from 56,324 in 2019), and 48,041 automated calls (down from 58,425 in 2019) – likely because the pandemic made making and recording calls much harder. Conversely, text messaging operations appear to have been easier to set up: UK consumers complained about 15,220 text messages over the course of the year, up from 14,605 in 2019.

“Despite the overall drop, the sheer number of complaints made in 2020 still makes for sobering reading. Not every call will be from a spammer or scam artist, but even legitimate businesses need to be careful they aren’t crossing the line into nuisance calling, especially when a growing number claim to be ‘customer-centric’,” said Andrew Stevens, Principal, Banking and Financial Services, Quadient. “To put the figure into context, imagine somebody touring the UK to make a nuisance call or text from every single phone booth and bank branch up and down the land – for all their efforts, this person would still fall short of the figure reported by the ICO.

“One particular worry is the steady rise in complaints at the end of the year. It’s been a difficult time for businesses, but many of their customers have also been struggling. Businesses must focus on providing support to people who need it, who may need access to information straight away for important purposes. For example, people with questions about emergency loans will have desperately needed clear, straightforward and quick communication with their bank. When many consumers are likely to be feeling emotionally fragile, they require quick responses to questions or proactive updates about important information. The last thing they need is to be bombarded with irrelevant or upsetting calls and texts.”

Other findings in the FOI data included:

  • Banking was the sector with the biggest rise. Nuisance contacts from accident claims companies made up almost a quarter of the complaints (23,205), but banking saw the biggest jump in complaints: rising 35% against 2019. This is concerning as many consumers needed urgent assistance from their banks this year, and visiting physical branches was not always possible. A loss of trust in banks’ communications could harm both banks and their customers.
  • The flood of Covid-19-related spam calls never came. 2020 was defined by the pandemic, so people might have expected some businesses and scammers to sense opportunities to sell pandemic-related products and services, or attempt COVID-focused scams. However, there were only 378 complaints about COVID-19-related contact: only slightly more than the number of complaints relating to adult content (358).
  • PPI calls and texts still have not stopped. 412 UK consumers complained to the ICO about PPI calls and texts. Considering the deadline for PPI claims passed in August 2019, we can safely assume that these were either scams or data gathering exercises.
  • Insurers were a shining light for the financial services industry. Although banks performed poorly, complaints related to insurance fell by 25%. This is positive news because the pandemic led to many people needing to make a claim, or check their policy was still valid – clearly insurers are getting key information to customers, rather than irritating them.

“While the overall reduction in complaints is positive news, the figures will only continue to fall if businesses are as targeted as possible. The rise in complaints over the last three months of the year reflects a danger that nuisance calls and texts will return to their previous levels, rather than continue falling,” Stevens concluded. “We can’t do anything about spammers and scammers, but there are steps legitimate businesses can take.  To be helpful, rather than an annoyance, businesses must follow customer preferences, such as contacting by email rather than phone, and ensure all relevant information is to-hand for customer service teams, regardless of the channel they’re covering. This will put them in a great position to have a healthy long-term relationship with customers, rather than risking a painful break-up.”

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