The government is to make it easier to impose fines on the companies behind cold calls and nuisance texts, following tens of thousands of complaints.
Currently, firms can only be punished if the Information Commissioner can prove a call caused “substantial damage or substantial distress”. But from April 6, that legal requirement is to be removed to enable fines of up to £500,000 to be imposed quickly.
More than 175,000 complaints were made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last year about nuisance calls and text messages.
The government says this number has risen in the past decade and the issue is particularly acute for the elderly and housebound as such calls can cause distress and anxiety.
In a speech earlier this month, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham described the current law as “a licence for spammers and scammers” and appealed for more powers.
The ICO can take action against companies who flout rules on direct marketing, and says it has issued penalties totalling £815,000 to nine firms since January 2012.
But it has been powerless to target other firms behind a large number of unsolicited calls or texts.
Digital economy minister Ed Vaizey told BBC Breakfast: “At the moment if the Information Commissioner goes after a company, he’s got to show the company has caused you – the consumer at home – serious distress, serious harm.
“It’s a very high test to pass which is why there have only been nine prosecutions, which is why we want to lower that test.”
He said it was “important to recognise” the UK has a “legitimate direct marketing industry… where businesses calling consumers can sometimes bring some benefit.
“We want to go after the cowboys. Frankly the Information commissioner knows who a lot of these companies are but it’s very, very difficult to pass that threshold; now it will be a lot easier,” he added.
It will now be up to the ICO to assess when a serious contravention has taken place.