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Phone watchdog plans text spam clampdown

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PhonepayPlus, the regulator responsible for the premium rate and phone-paid services industry, is planning to clamp down on the black market in lists of mobile numbers in response to growing anger at text spam.

Trading of such lists is thought to be a major factor behind a surge in public complaints over unsolicited text messages.

George Kidd, the regulator's chief executive told El Reg: "We've got to do something about lists and trading. We've got to be able to say to people 'you've bought this list and you shouldn't have'."

PhonepayPlus, formerly known as Icstis, launched a wide-ranging review of the premium mobile services market earlier in May. During the first three months of this year 80 per cent of all complaints it received were about ringtones, games, text spam and other commercial services targeting mobile users.

The early signs from the review are that the buying and selling of number lists needs to be addressed as a priority. Such personal data is included in the remit of the Information Commissioner's Office, but Kidd said he is ready to tackle the growing problem if others are unable to.

"The Information Commissioner has got a rotten job," he said. "He's got the wrong tools available to him. A £5,000 fine after a six month investigation? I can levy £250,000 after four weeks."

Kidd does not believe a rule change will be necessary to enforce a cut in text spam. He said: "Our code has a pretty broad set of rules. I think that if you give your name and number to someone two years ago and they now sell that on, that's taking advantage. We can say to companies 'you do that, and we're going to bust you'. There are many ways to skin a cat."

If using the broad rules of its code doesn't work, PhonepayPlus could consider a licensing scheme for mobile-paid service providers who collect and trade personal data.

It used a similar system to effectively shut down the rogue dialler racket in the days of dial-up internet access. Companies who wanted to distribute premium rate dialler software were required to put £500,000 in bank guarantee in case people were scammed by the software. Few operators took up a licence.

The review is set to report in July.

Kidd is also set to demand that providers stop merrily abusing the word "free".

"I'm a bit ahead of our board on this," he said, "but personally I feel use of the word 'free' as we've seen it is wrong and it's bullshit. If someone can show me where I get the free thing then fine, but it shouldn't be 'join my subscription service, then it's free', or 'buy six first then it's free'."

"C'mon, just stop it."

Icstis became PhonepayPlus in the wake of the TV phone-in scandal last year. Its failure to pick up on the widespread fraud was widely criticised. It's now aiming to act more pre-emptively, in a bid to foster trust in the premium rate industry and its regulators.

Kidd hopes that by being the first regulator to reclaim "free" from the clutches of marketeers PhonepayPlus can demonstrate that culture shift. He appealed: "Why can't this be the time that of all the sectors that you don't expect it from, the phone-paid guys are the ones to say let's call it quits first. Free's free, or it's not. And that's it."

Winning public trust for the premium rate industry is a tall order, but PhonepayPlus is pitching to the mobile service industry that putting its house in order will be worth the pain. The UK market is only just about to be over taken by the US as the biggest in the world, according to the regulator. "I'm saying to the industry that if we do these sorts of things the UK could be a £4bn market," Kidd said.

Now, imagine what Ant and Dec could do with that... ®

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