Monday, May 9, 2016

 

Hundreds of thousands of mobile phone customers hit by texting scam

Thousands hit by £4.50 a time scam: Customers facing bills of hundreds of pounds for texts advertising gaming services and pornographic content.

In the past two years, regulator PhonepayPlus received 7,462 complaints and adjudicated 38 times against firms for the unsolicited texts. Up to several hundred people were wrongly charged in each case.

Fines totalling £1.6million were levied against the rogue firms in 2014/15 and £1.4million in 2015/16.

But only two-thirds of the penalties have been paid and some of the firms are based abroad.

John Mann MP, of the Commons Treasury Committee, called for tougher fines than the current £250,000 maximum.

‘These text messages are theft and customers are being left totally exposed,’ he said. ‘There will be hundreds of thousands of people affected, many of whom probably don’t even know they have been charged … the numbers who complain are the tip of the iceberg.’

Mr Mann added: ‘The mobile phone companies appear to be collaborating … They should be dragged over the coals on this – customers need protection. They should be contacted by the phone companies to check if they have consented to these charges.’

Consumer Action Group’s Marc Gander said: ‘If the mobile phone companies were obliged to surrender their profits on these scams … as well as paying fines to the regulator, I’m quite sure the scam would stop overnight.’

Consumer group Which? advises those who receive the texts, which come from a five-digit number, to check their bills carefully. A Which? spokesman said: ‘Customers should reply to the message with ‘stop’, then complain to the company … then to their mobile provider as they may be eligible for a refund. Keep the message for evidence.’

UK-based Intrugo was last month fined £250,000 for its £3-a-week unsolicited text messages advertising ‘Hot New Babes’.

Hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting mobile phone customers are being sent premium-rate texts they never asked for.

Vicar Mr MacIntosh’s mobile phone provider Vodafone would not refund the charges, saying the service by companies Gresham Mobile and Zamano was ‘legitimate’ and that he must have signed up inadvertently.

The church minister was helped to complain by his daughter Caroline MacIntosh, who lives in west London.

She said: ‘My father never requested this service, which effectively doubled his mobile bills. He has no interest in gambling, so I was convinced it was a scam.

‘He probably did respond to a text message from the company. But he certainly never realised he was signing up to receive chargeable text messages.’

PhonepayPlus received 209 complaints about the TextPlayWin messages, including people saying the texts were unsolicited and others who thought they were free.

It fined Gresham £20,000 and ordered it to offer refunds. Mobile phone providers, including EE, O2, Vodafone and Three, stress the need for customers to check their bills regularly and investigate any unknown charges.

Between March 2015 and January this year, 329 people complained. One customer charged £100 wrote: ‘I have never agreed to subscribe to anything by this company. I do not know where they got my number.’

Intrugo was ordered to give refunds. But it has moved from its offices in Edgware, north London. Its sole registered director could not be reached at his address.

Firms that do not pay the fines risk being banned from operating. The regulator says it has issued 25 such bans since 2014.

Premium-rate text providers say they obtain customers’ numbers legitimately through people entering them on websites.

But mobile phone operators believe random number generators are used and there is the possibility of numbers being erroneously entered on websites.

A spokesman for PhonepayPlus said it ‘sets and enforces clear rules’ and firms must have ‘robust verifiable evidence which establishes the consumer’s consent’.

Customers have complained of being billed hundreds of pounds for the weekly or monthly texts, which advertise gaming services, ¿glamour videos¿ or pornographic content.

O2 said it undertakes ‘due diligence’ tests on premium-rate firms and ‘if issues are flagged … we take immediate action to put things right’.

Vodafone said: ‘The customer is contracting with the third party merchant so we always advise customers to contact them … If this doesn’t resolve the issue, we try and help in any way we can.’

A Three spokesman said: ‘We have clear rules on premium rate messaging … and work closely with the regulator to take action against providers who don’t meet our standards.’

Vodafone admits making a ‘small margin’ on the texts. O2, EE and Three would not confirm if they make any profit.

÷ Cold call pests are escaping huge fines totalling more than £2million by shutting down their businesses. Only three of the 20 penalties issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office in the past year have been paid. Ten of the firms went into liquidation. Others have issued appeals.

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