It is a hard thing to be against but I am not excited about the recent announcement that cold calls will be banned. Partly, of course, because they will not. The ban will only extend to calls (and I include texts and emails in that word) about pensions.
Cold calls from boiler room share rampers will not be banned. Nor will those from firms offering “investments” in airport car parks or shipping containers. Calls from personal injury firms will continue because the Government has separately decided not to ban those. As will those from PPI claims management firms.
Also exempt will be calls from any firm you are or have been a customer of – what the Government calls “an existing client relationship”. It does not say that relationship has to not be about pensions or, indeed, current. The legislative definition is awaited.
What is more, the rule will only apply to firms based in the UK. That means calls from firms (or crooks) in the 195 other countries of the world will not be affected.
Where it does apply, the rule will be enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office. It draws evidence from a variety of sources but principally the public. So people who get an illegal cold call will have to report it. If the number is withheld (some still are, though they should not be) that will be a fairly pointless exercise.
Even if the number is displayed, it is hard to see how any action can meaningfully be taken unless there is a recording of the conversation. The ICO tells me it will build up a “pattern” from complaints.
Who is this ban expected to stop? Criminals. People who call up to steal your money. Thieves who, if they are caught, face prosecution and jail. Is the added threat of a possible investigation by the information commissioner going to make them pause for a picosecond before they withhold their number and make the call? Of course not.
So what is its purpose? It passes the key political test of seeming to do something while costing taxpayers nothing. It enables ministers to be outraged – “it’s utterly unacceptable people who have worked all their lives to build up a pension pot should be subject to scams which may leave them out of pocket” – and misleading – “people should know that cold calling, apart from exceptional circumstances, is banned”.
Supporters of the change tell me it will enable all of us to get the message out there that any cold call is illegal, so just hang up. But it will not. Most cold calls will still be legal. Some cold calls about pensions will still be legal. The message will just get more complicated.
If you get a cold call, text or email about pensions that is not from abroad, nor from a firm you are a customer of, or once were, nor one you might have been referred to by your adviser or solicitor, and is not from an administrator of your pension fund or from a representative of a fund belonging to someone who has died and where you may be a beneficiary, or from a firm trying to track down people with pensions who have moved – breathe! – then it is illegal. Probably.
One of my Twitter contacts said it was now up to journalists to get the message across. She added that, if only we had given more publicity to The Pensions Regulator’s Scorpion campaign, £15m of pension money would not have been stolen last year.
It is nice to be appreciated. But anyone who thinks writing articles or broadcasting about these dangers will stop everyone being robbed is living in the comfortable mental luxury of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
I do not know a single personal finance journalist who has not discussed the dangers of cold calls and pension scams. I do so frequently. Of course, I hope what I do will help some people avoid the thieves. There is some evidence from my inbox that, in individual cases, it does.
But the people who read, watch or listen, then remember what we say and bring it to mind at the right moment are a small subset of the population. When people continue to be robbed, it will not be the fault of journalists.
The real fault lies with financial firms not willing to give up cold calling altogether. Those very firms who were falling over themselves on Sunday to put out well prepared statements about how pleased they were that ministers have acted and what a great thing the ban is.
The Whitehall PR machine enabled them to send that out then by providing the press release outlining the ban three days before the Sunday embargo, along with quotes of outrage and concern by ministers. Cue easy and uncritical coverage.
Not until Monday were the details set out in a 28-page document. It included this key paragraph:
“The Government intends to work on the final and complex details of the ban on cold calling in relation to pensions during the course of this year, then bring forward legislation to deliver the ban when Parliamentary time allows.”
That is civil service jargon for some time after Big Ben starts striking again.
I would love to be able to say that every cold call is from a crook. So I do. My message is this: If you get a cold call, assume it is from a thief and put the phone down or delete it unread. It could save you thousands of pounds.
That message will not change when this “ban” is brought in. Sorry, did I say “when”? I meant “if”. I cannot find the Twelfth of Never in my diary.
Paul Lewis is a freelance journalist and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Money Box’ programme. You can follow him on Twitter @paullewismoney