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Vulnerability. An open discussion

28 July 2015, Jonathan Levack, Head of Policy Projects
vulnerability an open discussion phonepayplus

Today PhonepayPlus publishes, Vulnerability: a PhonepayPlus Discussion Document. The premium rate services market is changing. While some services are experiencing a challenging operating environment, services like giving, gaming and gambling are becoming increasingly prevalent in our market. As a regulator, we’ve been thinking about what these changes mean for consumers, particularly those that are vulnerable.

On the other hand, we’ve also been thinking about what vulnerability now means. Traditional definitions of and solutions for vulnerable consumers increasingly are being seen as static and overly simplistic. What’s becoming clear to us and other regulators, like the FCA, is that vulnerability is dynamic and broad. And if we are to ensure that vulnerable consumers are protected from harm, we are going to have to think about more than just regulation.

We all have a responsibility here – regulators, industry and consumers – in this. Therefore, we would like to start a genuine conversation with stakeholders to discuss what a changing market means for vulnerable consumers and what we can do collectively to protect them in a healthy and innovative market.

In doing so, we published a discussion document today that we hope provides a basis on which to start that conversation.

Join the discussion on Twitter using the #VulnerableConsumers hashtag or drop us a comment below. Alternatively, for lengthy responses please email Jonathan Levack at


Vulnerability. A PhonepayPlus Discussion Document from PhonepayPlus


Start the conversation


  • Dr Michael Ward

    30/07/2015 18:30

    The premium rate industry offers a huge variety of products which range from genuine (though marginally useful) services through to out and out scams - with a vast sliding scale of products which fall somewhere between these two extremes. The mechanisms whereby people are charged for these products have become increasingly complicated and often baffle not just the vulnerable but those who care for them. Even non-vulnerable people don't necessarily have the time and resources to acquaint themselves with all the dangers inherent in providing a mobile phone to a child or elderly person. As you also note, "vulnerability" comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes too. Tailoring protection and premium rate use appropriately for every vulnerable user is likely to prove extremely difficult if not impossible. What, however, is clearly required is a simple opt-out - from ALL premium rate services - when taking out a mobile (or tablet) contract. The most vulnerable users - and I would include (especially smaller) children here - would then be fully protected. Some networks will block pornography and calls from the user to 09 numbers and shortcodes but most will not block incoming (sometimes completely unsolicited) reverse charge SMS. It is also possible to block mechanisms such as pay-for-it and in-app billing, but these things are not always straightforward and many parents understand such matters more poorly than their tech-savvy kids. Ringing up a network call centre and trying to explain what services and mechanism you wish to have blocked is often an uphill struggle. In my opinion, all mobile phone retailers should be mandated to insist that their customers explicitly opt in or out of all the services PP+ regulate when they sign up for a pay monthly contract or purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM. Anyone who wished to opt themselves (or any vulnerable individuals in their care) would be free to do so, educate themselves about the dangers, and customize any protection mechanisms they thought appropriate. The rest of us would, however, be free to hand over a phone to a child secure in the knowledge that he or she could not fall victim to any of the temptations, tricks, and outright frauds of the premium rate industry.

  • Matt Langley
    31/07/2015 19:24

    It's very simple, as there is no contract and no evidence of notice of rates, or informed consent: Any premium rate transaction should be actively notified to the bill payer for post transaction consent, and if they decline it, it should be completely free of charge, including the access charge from the telephone company. If the telephone company is unable to get a response from the consumer, then it should assume the transaction was declined. The only exceptions to this should be where informed consent has been previously agreed in a legally binding manner such as a contract for the individual service at an agreed price.

  • Ben Bell

    31/07/2015 21:04

    The option to pay for services quickly and easily with a mobile phone is definitely beguiling but in my experience, and from hearing stories from others, I think that both vulnerable and those not normally classed as vulnerable are often caught out by less scrupulous or diligent providers. The standard of proof required from a company to confirm customer consent seems very low and these things in combination mean that there is inevitably much less incentive for companies to tighten their procedures and execute proper due diligence when taking payment, as it is the customer that bears the burden in the case of a dispute. In addition, when challenging a transaction the onus seems to fall on the customer to prove that they did not consent to the charge, with the presumption that the service provider's own logs are sufficient evidence of consent. This is in contrast to other direct charging methods such as Direct Debit, credit cards and so forth where the burden of proof is on the supplier and in the event of dispute the customer is protected by their bank. It seems that this form of payment for premium services ought to be on an explicit (i.e. not just part of standard T's & C's) opt-in basis, and there ought to be a clear and immediate notification from the customer's network operator themselves, with clear and simple instructions on what to do if a mistake has been made (e.g. a simple SMS reply with "cancel"). The customer ought to be protected against mistakes and fraud by something akin to the Direct Debit guarantee. I do not believe these changes would significantly reduce the convenience of Payforit for customers, nor place an unwarranted burden on the networks or suppliers, and I think they would significantly reduce the likelihood of companies unintentionally or even deliberately taking payment from unwitting customers by making the suppliers take full responsibility for charges that were not clearly consented to, and hence increase trust in the system as a whole.

  • PhonepayPlus
    31/07/2015 10:15

    Hi Michael, many thanks for your comments on the vulnerability paper! This is an early stage to our wider discussions and we will be reflecting on all feedback in coming weeks.

  • PhonepayPlus

    03/08/2015 09:45

    Matt, thank you for taking the time to let us know your thoughts on Consumer Vulnerability. This will be taken into consideration when assessing the responses on the discussion.

  • PhonepayPlus
    03/08/2015 09:58

    Hi Ben, thank you for providing your feedback on the Vulnerability paper. It's great to see involvement from stakeholders in a discussion on Consumer Vulnerability. Many thanks!

  • paul emberton

    10/08/2015 10:05

    please see a response received on Friday from mobile academy to my questions regarding the charges they have been taking from a mobile phone registered in my name but used by son. He has no recollection of signing up to any agreement. When we are all bombarded by spam e-mails, texts offering all sorts of services it is easy for mobile academy to hide behind the texts they have sent but the reality is these were deleted by my son as he had no idea what they referred too. The contractual element of these services needs to be tightened up considerably Begin forwarded message: From: Date: 7 August 2015 11:05:11 BST To: Subject: Re: [Ticket ID: 20150806214112460 ] Referral - 04 Apr, 2015 Dear, Thank you for your query. We checked the mobile number you provided us with and we were able to find one subscription, activated on 04 Apr, 2015 Our logs show that you interacted with one of our promotional pages for the Mobile Academy. This page provided details on the service and its subscription fees. Only after you clicked a button with ‘Subscribe now £4 per week’, we activated the service and sent a confirmation message by SMS to your phone. This text message provided the cost and the frequency of the service as well as contact details and instructions how to unsubscribe. Be assured that charges for Mobile Academy only commenced after the user’s confirmation. The Mobile Academy is an award-winning, interactive mobile learning environment that provides a new way to learn-on-the-go. Each course contains test questions, videos, audio and other fun features that empower customers with a new learning experience on their mobile phones. A subscription to the Mobile Academy service costs £4.00 per week and, as mentioned earlier, you have been informed both before subscribing (on the promotional page) and right after the activation (by SMS) on the details of the service. The text message that was sent right after the activation had the following content: "[FreeMsg] You have subscribed to Mobile Academy. All-you-can-learn for £4.00 per week until you send STOP MACADEMY to 80206. Help? Call 02087790598”. On top of this, a monthly reminder about the service, including the cost of the service and opt-out details have been sent by SMS to the mobile number in question with the following content: "[FreeMsg] Reminder: You are subscribed to Mobile Academy. All-you-can-learn for £4.00 per week until you send STOP MACADEMY to 80206. Help? Call 02087790598" We confirm to have unsubscribed your number from our service. Therefore, no further charges will take place nor will you be receiving any messages from us. Should you have any questions or need more info, please do not hesitate to contact us. Kind regards, Ella Wilson _____________________________ Customer Care Confidential information may be contained in this message. You may not copy or publish this message. If you are not the addressee indicated in this message please remove it from your computer. ________________________________________

  • PhonepayPlus
    10/08/2015 11:18

    @Janet, thanks for your feedback on the Vulnerability topic, it will be reviewed together with all other feedback we received. On stopping the charge, send STOP ALL to the shortcode. If this still doesn't stop it, please contact us. You can also contact the mobile provider and ask if they can block all premium rate services on your son's phone given his situation. @Paul, thanks for your feedback as well. 'The contractual element of these services needs to be tightened up considerably.' It will be taken into consideration when reviewing.

  • Jody Rhodes

    13/08/2015 12:54

    The rules and regulations are far too complicated for everyone. Replace the guidelines with one rule. 1. Consumers are entitled to a refund if they are unhappy with the service received. Problem for industry and consumers solved.

  • Chris
    03/09/2015 23:47

    as Dr ward said, I think the most important change for PRS would be an opt-out facility offered by all mobile carriers. Secondly I think that reverse-charge text services should only be initiated by an outbound text from the mobile number that is going to be charged. I don't agree with or see the benefit of being able to set up a PRS from browsing on a mobile phone and ticking a box. It's far too easy in my opinion

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