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Ofcom is to crack down on premium-rate phone thieves who rip off punters by conning them into racking up costly phone calls. The communications regulator's decision to beef up protection for consumers follows a surge in complaints from punters who've been tricked into connecting to dodgy premium-rate services.

Announcing a consultation into the £1bn-a-year industry that will be carried out during August and September, Ofcom said it would examine options to strengthen the powers of ICSTIS - the industry-funded regulatory body for all premium rate services - as well as "any other actions necessary".

Concerned at the escalation in this kind of fraud, Ofcom and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) have decided that industry rules need to be tightened. Recently, ICSTIS has been swamped with complaints about rogue Internet diallers which can be hidden in spam or Web pop-ups. These then connect punters to the Net using expensive premium rate numbers and can lead to frightening phone bills.

Said Ofcom in a statement: "It is apparent to Ofcom, the DTI and ICSTIS that the internet dialler problem is the latest in a series of examples of unethical behaviour which have damaged consumer confidence in the premium rate industry. In order to strengthen consumer protection in the future, a more wide-ranging assessment of the regulation of premium rate services is therefore required."

It went on: "Where potentially criminal or unethical activity occurs, there will often be several companies or groups of individuals involved, some of whose roles will be unwitting. Applying sanctions against instigators can be difficult in practice. If there is a cross-border dimension, the situation is further complicated by overlapping responsibilities between different types of regulator across the EU and beyond.

"Ofcom will therefore seek to explore which additional measures may be appropriate to give consumers a greater degree of protection from misleading, fraudulent or inappropriate activity involving premium rate services."

In June, MPs warned the UK's telecoms industry that it needs to weed out the fraudsters and scammers ripping off punters or face the threat of the plug being pulled on the premium rate industry. MPs called for the industry to put its own house in order but also recognised that the regulator was struggling to keep up with complaints. With ICSTIS handling some 2,000 calls a day at the moment with many more not getting through, Conservative MP Sir George Young, described the regulator as being in "meltdown". ®

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