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Premium rate regulator stops providers charging for free info

And warns that this is a business, not a charity

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The premium rate phone regulator has moved to stamp out charges levied by operators for information provided elsewhere for free. It also objected to operators promoting premium-rate services on websites with the .org suffix.

PhonepayPlus (PPP) said that it had faced growing numbers of complaints, many upheld, about operators offering information for a fee that was often Government-provided and available elsewhere without charge. It also had concerns that web addresses ending in .org were used, leading some people to believe that the information was coming from non-profit or charitable organisations.

The regulator was also concerned at the target audiences for the information. "Some services are aimed specifically at consumers who are likely to be experiencing financial hardship," it said. "Examples would be services which offered advice to those on, or seeking to receive, means tested benefits, such as Housing Benefit."

PPP has now laid down rules demanding that providers make it clear when information is available for free, that they avoid targeting the vulnerable and that they refrain from using .org addresses.

"Where a Public Information Service provides information or advice that is substantially derived from, or based upon, information or advice that is provided by a publicly-funded organisation at no cost, and then providers are strongly advised to ensure that consumers are aware of the free alternative(s) in a clear and straightforward fashion," it said in a notice to the premium rate industry.

"The existence of a free alternative should be prominently presented on websites, so that the consumer does not have to scroll down to become aware of it, and on any other promotional material," it said.

"Public Information Services should not be promoted to a target group of consumers who are, or who are likely to be, experiencing material financial hardship," it said. "An example of this would be information or advice about means tested benefits, or information or advice aimed at a group of consumers who have suffered financial loss or hardship as a result of a recent event which is in the public eye. It is likely that any Public Information Service which does so will be found in breach of… the PhonepayPlus Code of Practice."

The regulator said that callers to premium rate lines must be given Government-related information quickly to cut down on costs for users.

"Services offering to provide contact details for a government, or other publicly-funded, body should do so at the beginning of a call, and without confusion or delay. Providers should note that PhonepayPlus has previously defined any period of greater than 15 seconds during which a caller to a 09 number is placed on hold as being unreasonable delay," it said.

PhonepayPlus's notice can be read here.

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