We are the UK regulator for content, goods and services charged to a phone bill.

Call connection services: What are they, and how to spot them

25 April 2018

Many of us don’t check everything we see on search engines in exhaustive detail. If you’re looking for information, you’ll most likely put some terms into a Google search bar, and then pick the first search option that looks about right - quite possibly the first one to appear on the list of results.

Most of us are simply too busy with other, more important things to check through everything we’re browsing. However, this is not without risk, including the very real possibility of unknowingly engaging a third-party service. Consumers seeking to contact a well-known organisation are often unaware that they have connected to the organisation via a third-party connection service, usually at higher cost than the organisation’s own customer service number. The Phone-paid Services Authority (PSA) has received complaints from consumers who reported surprise at being charged upwards of £30 for a single call.

At the PSA, we call them Information, Connection and Signposting Services, or ‘ICSS’ for short. These are companies that operate premium rate phone numbers that connect you to popular customer helplines –at companies like British Gas, Amazon, the AA, and sometimes government bodies like the DVLA or HMRC.   Properly run, these are lawful services and the companies who run them argue that they are offering a valuable service as the official numbers of the organisations in question may be difficult to find.

The PSA is responsible for regulating ICSS operating on 09 or 087 numbers – we have strict rules in place that require connection services to be clearly labelled as third-party services and to make it clear how much they will cost. We investigate and act against companies that have fallen short of the standard consumers expect. We’ve issued some substantial fines against providers who’ve been deemed to flaunt these rules.

While we actively seek to stamp out bad practice, some consumers simply aren’t aware how easy it is to engage one of these services. New research from the University of Nottingham and  supported  by the PSA has important insights into how we behave when we search for customer helplines, and how this can result in unexpectedly high bills. It showed that most people pay attention to a very small proportion of the information presented to them. And not everyone is scrupulous in judging whether a website is the one they want once they’ve landed on it either.

Using innovative eye-tracking technology, the researchers were able to track what people actually looked at on screens and for how long. Unsurprisingly, the top results in a list of searches came out as the most focussed on area of a screen.

Equally, more than 9 in 10 participants in the research did not read disclaimers or other small-print type information that disclosed crucial details like call tariff rates or notes confirming that a site was for a third-party service. And most consumers were found to identify a company website primarily from its branding and visual identity, rather than written material that might specify otherwise.

These habits have real implications. For habitual users of the internet, there is a real risk of using a third-party service unwittingly, often at higher cost. The risk for the vulnerable and less tech-savvy is even greater. According to the research, those that identified themselves as less tech-savvy were more likely to miss the fact the service they chose to use was a third party service and not the official number of the organisation they were looking for.

But it’s also important that consumers are aware of these service types and take steps to protect themselves. These are:

- Don’t assume the first search engine result is the direct number for the organisation you wish to contact.
- Check the number you are dialing. Official helplines are usually on numbers beginning 080 or 03, which are billed at low or standard rates. 09, 087 and 084 numbers are billed at premium rates.
- Check through your internet searches carefully. Remember that advertised numbers may not go directly to the company or organization you’re looking for. Read disclaimers and pay attention to the url (website address).
- Take your time when using a search engine. Checking the results can save you time and money in the long run.
- We believe that consumers should be able to make effective, informed choices about the services they use and interact with. It’s important for companies to respect this principle, and for greater awareness of what’s out there.