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Nuisance calls: Worst and repeat offenders 'should get prison terms'

Tuesday, November 8th 2016 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Nuisance callers that repeatedly breach data protection laws should be punished with custodial sentences, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA).

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced last month that it would soon have the power to hold the directors of rogue companies personally responsible for breaking the law.

From spring 2017, the bosses of companies responsible for illegal nuisance calls and spam texts will be liable for fines of up to £500,000.

The new powers are designed to catch directors who set up multiple companies and go into liquidation to avoid paying fines.

But the DMA, the trade association for one-to-one marketing and the organisation that runs the Telephone Preference Service, is calling for the government to go a step further and introduce custodial sentences for the worst offenders.

Chief executive Chris Combemale said: “It should come as no surprise that individuals willing to skirt the law when it suits them are also ready to do the same to avoid paying their debts.

“That’s why the powers of the ICO have recently been extended to also allow it to fine the directors that set up multiple companies to avoid justice.

“We wholeheartedly support the extension of fines to the individuals that are behind the rogue businesses, but for the worst and repeat offenders we believe the penalties should extend to custodial sentences as well.

“The Justice Secretary has the powers, which were introduced in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, but it’s now time they were used.”

'Whack-a-mole'

According to the DMA, the new powers given to the ICO to hold individuals to account relate only to breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) and not the Data Protection Act 1998.

It says this is a problem because data protection breaches are the root cause of the problem, with nuisance calls and spam texts a symptom of rogue companies using ‘bad data’.

“The introduction of custodial sentences is the next step in the campaign against nuisance calls and spam texts,” said Mr Combemale.

“The individuals profiting from these rogue businesses may well think twice about breaking data protection law if there is a real threat that they may go to prison for it.”

Giving evidence to the Digital Economy Bill Committee, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, said she would support extending liability and accountability to directors.

“Our office has issued fines that totalled about £4 million in the last year, but the problem is that we have been able to collect only a small proportion of those fines because companies go out of business and, as in a game of whack-a-mole, appear somewhere else.

“It is important for us to be able to hold directors to account for serious contraventions.”

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