More than 10,000 consumers are in line for refunds from firms that misled them into accepting charges on their phone bills.
The Phone-paid Services Authority (PSA), a telecoms regulator, has handed out fines totalling £2m to three companies over the past week – opening the way for customers to apply for reimbursement.
In the biggest case, a fine of more than £1m was given to Xplosion, which tricked customers into signing up to weekly charges of £4.50 for quizzes, competitions and videos.
The company’s websites used a tactic known as “click-jacking”. Victims unwittingly signed up to subscription services by clicking links on hard-to-spot pop-up adverts on websites including quiz site QUIZM8 and pornographic websites such as Xvidland. The PSA received 252 complaints. Xplosion was fined and banned from operating phone-paid services for five years.
One customer of QUIZM8 told the regulator: “I have no idea how or why my number became associated. I saw no promotion for the service and did not sign up for it.”
He said he had not been aware of charges until his bank rejected the payment of his phone bill. “I incurred bank charges as a result,” he added.
In another case a fine of £700,000 was handed to Tobaji, which operated a website that offered contact numbers for companies such as Asos and Vitality.
Users would be charged for the calls and the website failed to make clear when there were free, or low-cost, alternatives available. The company made £661,000 in the course of a year.
The third company, PowerTel, was fined £200,000 for misleading people into overpaying for short phone calls. It had placed voice messages on “hundreds of thousands” of outof-use phone numbers, giving the number for a directory service.
These numbers cost between £2 and £6.98 a minute. One caller told the PSA he realised his mistake immediately and hung up, but was charged £7.05 for a 22-second call.
Customers of all three companies can now claim refunds.
A spokesman for the PSA said: “Enforcement is a vitally important part of what we do. Where there is evidence of serious malpractice we have the power to bar services and providers from the market, order refunds and issue substantial fines.
“These fines reflect the seriousness of the breaches in question. In each case the PSA tribunal found that the service providers had broken the rules, resulting in consumer harm.”
The PSA said consumers should be cautious about what they clicked on to avoid following links that could lead to a charge and to make sure they understood the full cost of a service before signing up.
It advised people to be wary of customer service numbers that began with 087 or 09. The legitimate number may not be the first to appear on search engines. Consumers should check their phone bill to identify any unexpected or unrecognised charges.