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Ofcom's 0870 rip-off reforms stumble at the final hurdle

Burglar bungling delays consumer protection

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Ofcom has postponed long-scheduled new rules designed to clamp down on the non-geographic number rip-off, after it realised that its rules could scupper burglar alarms and monitoring systems for vulnerable people.

Regulators have kept the news quiet. There's no announcement on its website. Ofcom told industry at a call routing focus group last week, according to operator Numberstore.

Ofcom told the Reg the hold-up has been prompted by a submission from a trade body called the UK Competitive Telecommunications Association (UKCTA). Its document, dated January 7 2005 (pdf, pages 12 and 13), warns on technical issues caused by plans for free pre-announcements on expensive calls.

An Ofcom spokeswoman said regulators had only become aware of the issue relating to alarm systems in the last few weeks.

When it drew up the new regulations more than 18 months ago, Ofcom decided to allow firms to opt out of providing standard rate national numbers - if they put out a free warning that the call will cost extra before it is answered. The problem is that many alarms automatically dial out to 0870 numbers when they are tripped. Some will time out if the call is not answered quickly, which could mean an emergency goes unreported.

The spokeswoman said: "Ofcom is investigating how to deal with the very specific case of alarm and safety services running on 0870. Ofcom is committed to introducing rules to make it clear to consumers what they will pay when calling 0870."

Consumers are forced to use 0870 numbers by banks, call centres and government bodies.

The further review means consumers won't be protected from high charges until spring or even summer next year. The delay will last "weeks to a few months", Ofcom confirmed.

Regulators acted after an outcry from consumer groups, including the campaigning website Saynoto0870.com. Currently, calls can cost up to three times the ordinary national rate, though many people don't know it.

After reading submissions - including UKCTA's - watchdogs launched a consultation on slashing rates for calling 0870 numbers back in September 2005. The stated aim was to end the practice within a year. When it eventually released concrete proposals in April 2006, the date had already slipped to February 2008.

Today Ofcom's spokeswoman assured us there will be no U-turn on the regulations. "The commitment is totally still there," she said. ®

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