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'Not everything in the garden is rosy'

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The number of complaints concerning rip-off premium rate services (PRS) hit record highs last year, raising concerns that the regulator is unable to cope with the rising tide of fraud.

Last year, PRS regulator ICSTIS received 27,501 complaints - a 240 per cent increase on 2002 and the highest annual level of complaints since its creation in 1986.

Dodgy text messages and rogue Internet diallers accounted for two-thirds of all complaints received last year, while spam and scam text messages enticing mobile users to call premium rate numbers accounted for around 7,500 complaints.

Publishing its annual report yesterday, ICSTIS said: "Major problems with premium rate-charged Internet services - caused by pop-up boxes, emails, and non-compliant or ‘rogue’ diallers - started in late 2003 and have been of very serious concern in the first half of 2004.

"We received almost 11,000 complaints about Internet-based services in 2003, with most complaints concerning unauthorised use, misleading advertising and adult services failing to cut off at the required £20.00 maximum call cost."

'Small minority'

In his introduction to the report, ICSTIS chairman Sir Peter North admitted that "not everything in the garden is rosy... These practices throw up a number of issues which all those involved in the industry (which generated revenues of around £650m last year) must recognise and start to address.

He went on: "We will not let consumer confidence in services and the creativity of legitimate businesses be jeopardised by the criminal and irresponsible actions of a small minority."

However, ICSTIS' tough talking doesn’t fool everyone. Last year it dished out fines of £1.2m but recouped less than £500,000. In a Parliamentary debate this week, Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, asked if the role of ICSTIS as a regulator is "part of the problem?"

"Should (ICSTIS) be in the business of providing advice and information online and through its helpline, or should it be pulling back and limiting itself to an enforcement role? At the moment, it cannot do both," he said.

One industry insider source told The Register that ICSTIS just doesn't have the resources or ability to regulate an industry that is moving too fast for it to keep up. ®

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