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Information Services

COMPLIANCE UPDATE

For providers of premium rate services which provide the contact numbers of, or reproduce information from, or provide a direct connection at a higher rate to, a public information service or commercial enterprise 13/03/2012

FOR THE ATTENTION OF ALL THOSE INVOLVED IN PROVIDING PREMIUM RATE SERVICES FOR THE PURPOSES OF SECTION 120 OF THE COMMUNICATIONS ACT 2003

This update is to inform all those who provide premium rate services (PRS) for the purposes of section 120 of the Communications Act 2003, that PhonepayPlus has identified a number of practises relating to the provision of public information service contact numbers and commercial enterprise customer contact numbers which are highly likely to be in breach of the PhonepayPlus Code of Practice (12th Edition) (“the Code”). This update does not apply to Directory Enquiry (DQ) services as defined in PhonepayPlus “Guidance on Directory Enquiry Services” and which currently operate on the 118 number range.

Those involved in providing PRS should familiarise themselves with the following information:

Background

Recent PhonepayPlus complaints, investigations and monitoring have identified a number of practices regarding online advertising by premium rate services which do one of the following:

  1. Provide an Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) facility which contains the number of a public information service, or;
  2. Provide information or signposting to public information services and procedures, or;
  3. Immediately connect consumers to a public information service, but at a higher cost than if the consumer had called the number directly themselves, or;
  4. Be offered the option via computerized or live operator of being given the public information number sought, or connected directly to the service, or;
  5. Any of the above, but in relation to customer contact numbers for a commercial enterprise rather than a public information number.

1) A service which provides a recorded message of the number the consumer is looking for

A provider pays for keywords from search engines offering search engine marketing (SEM), such as Google AdWords. SEM is a paid-for mechanism designed to push a particular website to the top of search engine results.

When a consumer enters keywords, the top returned searches in the paid-for or ‘sponsored’ links are for premium rate services providing an IVR recording of the number the consumer is looking for, rather than public information service websites where the numbers are available. These sponsored links appear at the top of webpages for returned results, appearing above the ‘natural’ search.

If the consumer clicks on a link to a sponsored search result, they arrive on a landing page which prompts them to call a premium rate number. The webpage will sometimes be presented in such a way as to imply an association with the public information service the consumer is looking to contact, when no such association exists. In addition the consumer may not be clearly provided with the price of the call, or with key information such as a link to the website of the public information service. Once the consumer calls the premium rate number they are provided with a recorded IVR message of the number to call if they wish to directly contact the public information service. The consumer is billed via a one off drop charge.

2) A service which provides a recorded message which reproduces the information the consumer is looking for

The consumer is attracted to the provider’s webpage via a sponsored link through a search engine, as at 1) above. As before, the provider’s webpage may not contain pricing or other key information, and may imply an association with a public information service where none exists.

Upon calling the premium rate number the consumer is presented with an IVR (Interactive Voice Response – i.e. recorded message) containing information which has been reproduced from the information provided by a public information service telephone number or website. This IVR may also include signposting to other public information services and procedures.

3) Immediate connection to a public information service number at a higher cost

The consumer is attracted to the provider’s webpage via a sponsored link through a search engine, as at 1) above. As before, the provider’s webpage may not contain pricing or other key information, and may imply an association with a public information service where none exists.

However upon calling the premium rate number, the consumer is directly connected to the public information service number, and is charged at a premium rate for each minute of the call. The overall charge to the consumer may be significantly higher when the consumer is connected to a service in high demand as consumers may be held in a queue.

4) Connection to a computerized or live operator offering the option of providing the number or information sought, or direct connection to the service

The consumer is attracted to the provider’s webpage via a sponsored link through a search engine, as at 1) above. As before, the provider’s webpage may not contain pricing or other key information, and may imply an association with a public information service where none exists.

Upon calling the premium rate number, the consumer is connected to a computerized or live operator offering the option of either obtaining the number directly or else offering to connect to the public information service. This may have a drop charge (i.e. a charge immediately upon connection) followed potentially by an ongoing per minute charge.

5) Any of the above, but in relation to a commercial enterprise customer contact number

PhonepayPlus recognizes that some premium rate providers also use SEM to promote websites offering commercial enterprise customer contact numbers. As before, the websites may imply an association with the commercial enterprise where none exists.

Potential breaches of the PhonepayPlus Code of Practice (12th edition)

Where the providers’ webpage either omits key information, does not give sufficient prominence or implies they are linked with a public information service or commercial enterprise customer contact number, then they are likely to be in breach of the Code in relation to paragraph 2.3.2 which states;

Premium rate services must not mislead or be likely to mislead in any way

In addition the public information service may attract consumers who are in vulnerable circumstances (such as the need to claim unemployment benefit, seek medical advice, or apply for government crisis loans). Where this is the case, then premium rate services which either relay or connect the public information service numbers to consumers may also be in breach of paragraph 2.3.10 of the Code, which states;

Premium rate services must not seek to take advantage of any vulnerable group or any vulnerability caused to consumers by their personal circumstances.

PhonepayPlus action and next steps

PhonepayPlus takes the potential consumer harm issues raised by these services very seriously. We have already taken action to ensure the removal of one such apparent service whilst we conduct a formal investigation into the service and the company behind it. We will continue to investigate and address apparent breaches of our Code of Practice on a case-by-case basis when we become aware of them through our own monitoring, consumer complaints or complaints from affected organisations, or through referrals from other bodies.

However, we are persuaded that in addition to taking action on individual cases, a systematic service-wide approach needs to be taken to address potential consumer harm in this area.

We are therefore carrying out an urgent review of these services. Our preliminary view is to put in place a prior permissions regime that will prevent such services from operating unless they have prior approval from PhonepayPlus on the basis of having met specified conditions. As we conduct our formal review, PhonepayPlus would encourage providers of such services to consider appropriate controls which could include, but are not limited to, the following suggestions;

  • Ensure language used in SEM copy accurately reflects that the service provided is a form of directory enquiry. For example, the metadescriptions and metatags used in SEM must not be considered to mislead the consumer, particularly vulnerable consumers, into believing that a premium rate number is that of the actual service they are seeking.
  • Upon arriving on a landing page, the layout and presentation of information should satisfy all obligations under the Code to state the cost of the premium rate number clearly, and furthermore should be distinct in appearance from the public service information or commercial enterprise being sought (e.g. a website should not be perceived to use colour or typeface which imitates the public information service or commercial enterprise site for which the information is sought).
  • It would be particularly helpful if consumers were also presented with the actual public enquiry number number (and cost) of the service which they are seeking, with a clear statement that this number can be used to contact the service directly at a lower cost. The presentation of the actual number should be in a manner which is clear, prominent and proximate to the premium rate number advertised.
  • Where consumers are directly connected to a public information service or commercial consumer contact number at a higher rate, providers should ensure consumers receive a clear and short phone message upon connection informing them of the price of the call per minute and the actual public enquiry number with the cost per minute of calling that number. Any other relevant information should also be included.
  • Services should not provide any facility which enables consumers to save a premium rate number obtained through a model which corresponds to any of those described at 1) – 5) above, to a handset or SIM card.

Once the formal review is complete, PhonepayPlus will consult on final proposals for any prior permissions regime. In the meantime we expect providers to take any necessary action to ensure that their services are compliant with the PhonepayPlus code. Providers are reminded that PhonepayPlus offers a free compliance advice service to aid providers in constructing a service and related marketing that can comply with the Code.

Download PDF version of the 'Information Services' Compliance Update