Telecoms regulator Ofcom will introduce new rules to prevent consumers being harassed by silent calls, but the crackdown won't start for another four months.

Firms that breach these regulations face a fine of up to £2 million, after the maximum penalty was raised in Parliament last week from £50,000 (see the Beat Cold Callers guide).

Thousands of householders complain every year that they are targeted by firms with repeated nuisance, and sometimes distressing, calls where they hear nothing when they pick up the phone.

What are the new rules?

Under the plans, to come into effect in February, companies making a sales or customer service call must not telephone that person again on the same day if they've already tried but there was silence at the FIRM'S end.

This may sound strange but many calls made by outbound call centres are often automated so agents do not manually dial themselves.

Before a call is routed to an agent, software used by the company determines whether a person or an answer phone has picked up. Only where it's a human being will the call be transferred.

But glitches mean the software sometimes wrongly identifies a person as an answer phone in some cases, such as when there is background noice.

When this happens, the call is not re-routed and the person hears silence.

The rules apply to any call made by a UK company whether in the UK or from an offshore call centre.

The exception to the new regulations is that firms can phone again if they know one of their agents will definitely be on hand to take the call.

Previous Ofcom intervention

In 2006, Ofcom introduced rules to address a separate problem, which it says it largely fixed.

This was when a call centre was too busy or there were not enough agents to take the call after the automated dialling, the customer would hear silence when he or she picked up.

Following that intervention, firms must leave an automated message and not call again when an agent is not available.

'Consumer harm'

Where consumers have complained to Ofcom about silent calls over 70% said they received two or more in a day from the same company. These silent calls were often over a period of days or even weeks.

It received around 6,600 complaints about silent and abandoned calls in 2009 and already in 2010 Ofcom has received over 6,800 complaints.

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards says: "Silent and abandoned calls can cause significant consumer harm. By tackling repeat silent calls, backed by firm enforcement action and a strong financial deterrent, Ofcom expects to see an overall reduction in harm as providers stop these practices."

How to tackle silent calls

If you've been a victim of silent calls you can report the firm to Ofcom.

To find out who called you try dialling 1471 to get the number and look it up on the internet or call it back.

If the caller withheld their number, you can call your telephone provider's nuisance number helpline, stating the time and date of call to attempt to trace the number.

Further reading/Key links

Fight back: Beat Cold Callers
Cut costs: Cheap Home Phones, Cheap Broadband, Callchecker, International Callchecker