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Ofcom acts to improve consumer protection

Slowly does it

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Ofcom has published a stack of proposals about how to improve consumer protection for millions of UK phone and broadband users, kicking off ten weeks of consultation during which it will look to thrash out a number of proposals to keep UK consumers safe from rogue or incompetent operators.

In a nutshell, the regulator wants to increase consumer protection by installing an improved early warning system to raise awareness of scams and misselling in the communications sector, backed by "quicker and more targeted action" to address issues of concern to consumers. It also wants to see how current complaints processes can be improved, and provide access to "reliable and useful data to inform their choices in a competitive market".

According to the consultation document*, Ofcom's aim is to "work together with other organisations and industry to ensure that consumers benefit from increasingly competitive communications markets, are effectively protected from financial and physical harm, unreasonable annoyance and anxiety, and have the information and tools necessary to make informed choices."

Much of Ofcom's desire to improve consumer protection comes from increased competition with consumers able to source their telecoms service from scores of different providers. But with improved choice comes the greater chance that something might go wrong - either as a genuine mistake or by operators deliberately setting out to rip-off punters.

This is acknowledged by Ofcom who noted: "Consumer protection is particularly challenging in the communications sector, because modern communications systems provide ineffective or dishonest providers with easy and efficient access to consumers, and because new technologies can give rise to new forms of harm. Though desirable in other respects, the growth of competition can also contribute to consumer protection problems, as it can lead to a rise in unfair selling practices and may be associated with an increase in 'hit and run' behaviour by dishonest providers."

Indeed, the regulator points out that when it comes to rogue internet diallers, silent calls, misselling, and misleading advertising, it has adopted an "increasingly vigorous approach to consumer protection". Yet, there is still one area where Ofcom has yet to make the right noises regarding consumer protection.

Last year, broadband ISP Bulldog was investigated by Ofcom amid hundreds of complaints from punters who said they had been left without phone and broadband services. Complaints reached such a level in June, July and August that Bulldog's undermanned customer support service was almost permanently engaged. Despite widespread media coverage and hundreds of complaints, it took Ofcom until the last day of August before it finally intervened and opened an investigation.

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