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Telecoms regulator launches major plan to tackle volume of scam calls to Irish mobile users

ComReg has established a new taskforce to deal with the issue.

Image: Shutterstock/Mr.Whiskey

IRELAND’S TELECOMS REGULATOR has established a taskforce to tackle the increase in scam calls and texts being sent to members of the public seeking their personal details.

The Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) convened the taskforce last month amid fears about the perceived trustworthiness and integrity of electronic communications in Ireland.

The taskforce has appointed an independent chairperson and secretariat who will meet monthly with representatives of telecoms operators who are currently licensed to provide voice calls and SMS services in the State.

It will discuss practical ways to minimise so-called “nuisance communications” and issue two reports to ComReg on its progress over the next year: one after six months and one after a year.

The first report will include a of recommendations to combat scam communications in the long-term, while the second will update ComReg on any interventions being developed and review whether the taskforce should continue beyond that point.

The setting up of the taskforce followed a meeting between Minister of State with responsibility for communications Ossian Smyth and telecommunication industry leaders to address the ongoing problem of scam calls and messages. 

It is supported by the Department of Communications and follows what ComReg describes as an “increasing frequency of nuisance communications” to members of the public.

Polling conducted by Red C on behalf of The Journal last year found that three in four adults in Ireland received a scam call from an Irish number in the month before being surveyed.

Over the past year, members of the public reported receiving scam calls from ‘cloned‘ numbers belonging to the Department of Social Protection, the Courts Service, the office of the Attorney General, and Gardaí.

Sophisticated text messages impersonating parcel delivery companies, banks, the HSE and the Revenue Commissioners have also been sent by fraudsters.

ComReg attributes the increase in such communications to the reduced cost and increased availability of equipment that enables criminals to carry out the scam.

“Consumers are being inconvenienced, confused, and threatened by the volume of
nuisance communications,” the regulator said.

“There is a clear and present danger that consumers can be manipulated into providing sensitive personal information, such as Personal Public Service numbers and banking information.”

A similar taskforce already is being set up in the United Kingdom, where companies behind nuisance communications can be fined £500,000 (€598,000) for breaking data laws.

UK mobile network EE also had to block 18,000 sim cards used for fraud over a three-month period last year.

Correspondence from Three Ireland to Ossian Smyth, sent last November and seen by The Journal, said the taskforce could look at ways to block numbers which ‘clone’ Irish numbers from abroad.

The company’s CEO Robert Finnegan also suggested that ComReg could maintain a register of numbers based abroad which use Irish fixed numbers legitimately, such as call centres, and block those which do not.

And he said the taskforce could look at the use of a so-called Home Location Register (HLR) lookup service, a database which helps businesses find out information about the status of mobile phone numbers, such as whether a number is active or switched on.

“We continue to work closely with the Gardaí, NCSC [National Cyber Security Centre] and ComReg on this matter and we mutually share threat intelligence with the NCSC,” Finnegan said, welcoming the establishment of the taskforce.

As well as its effect on mobile phone users, ComReg also warned last December of the secondary impact on companies which rely on phone calls to carry out their business.

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Announcing the taskforce, the regulator said it had heard “anecdotal cases” of firms having to advise customers that they would be calling to ensure they would be answered.

“This implies that nuisance communications are leading to missed appointments and lost business,” ComReg said.

“In short, trust is being lost in electronic communications services, and this is impacting consumers and the economy at large.” 

The regulator said last month that the first meeting of the taskforce was due to take place by the end of January, and a spokesperson said this would happen shortly.

“ComReg is aware of the impact of so-called scam or nuisance calls on users of electronic communications,” a statement read.

“By facilitating the Nuisance Communications Industry Taskforce, ComReg is working with industry so that electronic communications companies can identify interventions to mitigate this problem.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Climate Action and Communications said that Minister Smyth continues to engage with stakeholders to develop proposals that will reduce scam calls and messages.

“The taskforce will seek to address the matter from a network operator / service provider perspective with the full support of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications,” a statement added.

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