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Crackdown looming on premium-rate phone number internet ads

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Time may be short for companies who make a living with internet-promoted premium phone numbers, as the UK regulator of such matters opens a second consultation aimed at denying them obscurity.

Adverts will be required to state clearly that they aren't linked to the service they're promoting, and will be required to use the term "Premium Rate" under proposals outlined by the regulator PhonePayPlus - which will surely curtail, if not destroy, the business of promoting alternative phone numbers through search engines.

The services, which PhonePayPlus identifies as Information Connection and/or Signposting Services (ICSS) are, arguably, simply scams designed to trick users into spending money on valueless support, though the companies involved refute such allegations as one would expect.

Their business is to buy AdWords, or Bing equivalents, for "UK tax office number" or "NHS Direct" or similar, then put their premium-rate number in large, friendly digits across the screen. Unwary, or lazy, individuals then dial the premium number only to have the real number read out to them, or are put though to the real (free) government number while being charged the premium rate.

If the users are lazy then that's fine: they are paying to avoid bothering to find the real number, but if they're unwary then that's fraud and shouldn't be allowed. The difficulty is distinguishing between the two.

PhonePayPlus consulted on the subject last year, prompting vocal feedback from the premium number "industry" which sees itself as no different from directory enquiries. This consultation (PDF, excruciatingly detailed) is designed to take that response into account.

It does that mainly by spelling out the difference, and requiring that services clearly identify themselves as "Premium Rate" in large letters as well as in the small print. Companies will also be banned from using URLs which look similar to the organisation whose number they're providing and will be required to tell callers who they are and how much they charge before the Premium Rate kicks in.

Services which just read out a number will be required to advise callers to have a pen and paper ready prior to the call, which should tip off all but the most unwary that something is amiss.

If those calling the numbers don't care then this will make little difference, but if the services are taking advantage of confused callers then this could be the end of their business. PhonePayPlus might have a stupid name but has (eventually) proved willing to fine anyone breaching its rules, and has the power to fine upline providers if the companies at the bottom of the chain disappear.

The consultation will be open until 5 June, and the regulator is "particularly eager to receive feedback to these proposals from providers of ICSS" as well as the companies they sometimes pretend to be, so expect to see some fulsome responses as they fight for survival. ®

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