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Watchdog issues stringent fines and warns consumers to beware of the search engine climbers

14 March 2011



PhonepayPlus, the UK national regulator for premium rate services, today warned that consumers using search engines (such as Google) to find contact numbers for organisations should check returned results carefully before dialling any numbers.


A number of websites have emerged that offer numbers for information services ranging from government helplines to customer service lines for high street retailers. The numbers provided, however, are premium rate numbers, which cost consumers up to £1.53 a minute, for information that is generally available for free elsewhere. Using search engine marketing (SEM), these websites can climb to a very high position in sponsored links, being amongst the first sites returned when consumers search for specific contact numbers.

PhonepayPlus issued the warning following an adjudication in which two companies, AT Telecom Ltd and Customer Service Helplines (UK) Ltd, were fined £50,000 each for misleading consumers and failing to make the price of calling the premium rate numbers clear to consumers. The full adjudication is published today on the PhonepayPlus website.

Paul Whiteing, Chief Executive of PhonepayPlus said:

“These fines show that we are serious about clamping down on such websites that can mislead consumers. We are aware that the people behind such sites have become adept at using SEM to push these sites to the top of the pile when a consumer uses search engines to find numbers. We have already worked with Directgov to forward a number of sites to Google and Bing when these sites use premium rate numbers for information available for free from the government, and we continue to look for ways to work with search engine providers to stop activity that causes consumer harm.

“Before calling any number, consumers should look carefully at the numbers that any websites provide and remember that premium rate numbers generally begin with 09 prefix.”

CONSUMER ADVICE

Consumers looking for contact numbers online should take these three easy steps to protect themselves:

1.     Know the URL – check the URL of the site offering numbers? Does it look plausible? If you are looking for government information, government websites should end in .gov.uk. If the website offering numbers has a different URL, check again and see if the information is available for free on a government website. If you are looking for information in relation to a retailer’s or other’s customer service line, does the URL correspond with the main URL for the company you want to contact?

2.     Know your numbers – does the number begin with 09? If so, this is a premium rate number.

3.     Know what it costs – if there is small print on the website, read it very carefully and understand exactly how much you will be charged and for what before you dial.

 NOTES TO EDITORS

1.     PhonepayPlus is the organisation (previously known as ICSTIS) that regulates phone-paid services - the goods and services that you can buy by charging the cost to your phone bills and mobile pre-pay accounts. Further details of its work can be found at www.phonepayplus.org.uk.
2.     Ofcom has responsibility and accountability for the regulation of premium rate services under the terms of the Communications Act 2003. However, Ofcom has appointed PhonepayPlus to deliver the day-to-day regulation of the market, granting it formal powers to protect consumers on its behalf by approving its Code of Practice
3.     For more information, contact the PhonepayPlus Press Office on (020) 7940 7440 or email pressoffice@phonepayplus.org.uk