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Notice to Industry: Public Information Services

16 September 2009


Industry notice about Public Information Services.


Background

‘Public Information Services’ are defined by PhonepayPlus for the purposes of this Notice as those premium rate phone-paid services that provide information or advice which is also, or mainly, available from another, free, source provided by a government department or other publicly-funded body.

Following a number of recent complaints and subsequent investigations, which have led to breaches being upheld by PhonepayPlus adjudication tribunals, this Notice is issued in order to identify the types of consumer harm that occurred, and how PhonepayPlus is likely to interpret the provisions of  its Code of Practice (11th edition, amended April 2008) in relation to Public Information Services.

Our Concerns

The main issues identified in relation to Public Information Services, and the related Code provisions, are as follows:

1. The same information or advice provided by these services is available, free of charge, from other sources, such as freephone telephone lines, websites, or by visiting a location in person.   Whilst the provision of free information or advice elsewhere is not in itself an issue, it becomes an issue where the information or advice is also available from a government source, or another body which is funded from public resources and the consumer is not alerted of this in a clear, prominent and straightforward way, and is, therefore, unable to make an informed decision prior to engaging with the service and incurring a charge.

These issues have been raised, and upheld by a PhonepayPlus Tribunal, in connection with a breach of paragraph 5.4.1a of the Code.  Paragraph 5.4.1a reads as follows:

“Services and promotional material must not mislead, or be likely to mislead, in any way”

2. These services are sometimes promoted by a website which carries the suffix ’.org’, which is usually recognised as denoting that the website is ‘not for profit’.  As such, this can cause confusion to consumers when there is a charge for the service.

3. These services often pay to be optimised by search engines (such as Google or Yahoo!) causing their weblink to appear at the top of the list of matching sites.  A consumer searching for information or advice might be more inclined to click the first option displayed by a search engine rather than a public website which provides the same information or advice for free. This issue is exacerbated when issues a) or b) are also present.

Whilst these issues have not been construed as breaches of the Code, they have been raised as aggravating factors by the Tribunal, when set against the fact that the same, or very similar, information and advice is available elsewhere from a free, publicly-funded source.

4. Some services are aimed specifically at consumers who are likely to be experiencing financial hardship.  Examples would be services which offered advice to those on, or seeking to receive, means tested benefits, such as Housing Benefit.

This issue has been raised, and upheld, by a PhonepayPlus Tribunal, in connection with a breach of paragraph 5.4.1b of the Code.  Paragraph 5.4.1b reads as follows:

“Services and promotional material must not take advantage of any characteristic or circumstance which is likely to make consumers vulnerable”

5. Some information and/or advice services that carry a premium rate charge use operators who are untrained or unqualified to provide advice. In addition, these operators are sometimes reported as being generally unhelpful insofar as they lack relevant knowledge on the service in question.

Whilst this issue has not been raised directly in connection with a breach of the PhonepayPlus Code, it has been raised as an aggravating factor by the Tribunal, when set against the relatively high cost of the service, and the fact that the same, or very similar, information and advice is available elsewhere from a free, publicly-funded source. 

6. Some services promise to provide consumers with information, such as contact details for a related free service, at the beginning of a call.  This information is not then provided until some time later.

This issue has been raised, and upheld by a PhonepayPlus Tribunal, in connection with a breach of paragraph 5.4.2 of the Code. Paragraph 5.4.2 reads as follows:

“Services must not be unreasonably prolonged or delayed”

Our Decision

In light of PhonepayPlus’ consideration of these issues, and previous decisions made by Tribunal in respect of some of them, PhonepayPlus hereby gives notice of the following, to take effect from the date on which this Notice is issued.

1. Where a Public Information Service provides information or advice that is substantially derived from, or based upon, information or advice that is provided by a publicly-funded organisation at no cost, and then providers are strongly advised to ensure that consumers are aware of the free alternative(s) in a clear and straightforward fashion.  The existence of a free alternative should be prominently presented on websites, so that the consumer does not have to scroll down to become aware of it, and on any other promotional material.

2. We acknowledge that there are some occasions where a Public Information Service might give helpful information or advice beyond that given by a free alternative.  In these instances,  the existence of the free alternative should  be clearly and prominently provided (as set out at point one), but are content that any added value offered by the paid-for service may also be highlighted, provided the value is not exaggerated.

3. Public Information Services should not be promoted on a website which uses the suffix ‘org.’ in its address, unless the promoter is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, or a registered charity.  Any Public Information Service which does so is at risk of being found in breach of misleading consumers by a PhonepayPlus Tribunal.

4. Public Information Services should not be promoted to a target group of consumers who are, or who are likely to be, experiencing material financial hardship.  An example of this would be information or advice about means tested benefits, or information or advice aimed at a group of consumers who have suffered financial loss or hardship as a result of a recent event which is in the public eye.  It is likely that any Public Information Service which does so will be found in breach of paragraph 5.4.1b of the 11th edition of the PhonepayPlus Code of Practice.

5. Services offering to provide contact details for a government, or other publicly-funded, body should do so at the beginning of a call, and without confusion or delay.  Providers should note that PhonepayPlus has previously defined any period of greater than 15 seconds during which a caller to a 09 number is placed on hold as being unreasonable delay.

6. Operators providing advice must clearly state any relevant qualifications or experience at the start of the call.  If operators do not have any relevant qualifications, then the source of the advice they are giving must be made clear to the consumer.