Watch out for rip-off 'helplines', warns watchdogPhonepayPlus fines rule-breaking websites

03 March 2011

A picture of a someone's hand holding a phone receiver

Don't pay a premium to call government helplines, warns PhonepayPlus

Rule-breaking websites are charging customers premium rates to call numbers for information that is available for free from official sources, premium rate watchdog PhonepayPlus has found.

PhonepayPlus has identified a number of websites that provide phone numbers for users to call to access information services. These websites provide numbers to call for anything from government helplines to customer services lines for high street retailers. 

However, the numbers quoted by these websites are often premium rate numbers, which charge anything up to £1.53 a minute to call. The information you can access by calling these numbers is usually available for free from other, official sources.

If the number starts 09, it is a premium rate number and likely to be a scam - don't call it. You can find out more about the cost of calling 09 and other expensive phone numbers in the free Which? guide on cheap alternatives to 0870 and 0845 calls.

Websites use online marketing to trick consumers

Alarmingly, these websites often use online marketing tactics to appear high in search engine results pages (SERPs) if you search for a specific contact number. In some cases, the rule-breaking websites are among the first sites returned following a consumer search.

PhonepayPlus has today announced fines for two such companies, Customer Service Contact Numbers - run by AT Telecom Ltd - and Customer Service Numbers - run by Customer Services Helplines (UK) Ltd. Each were fined £50,000 for 'misleading consumers and failing to make the price of calling the premium rate numbers clear to consumers.'

PhonepayPlus CEO Paul Whiteing says: 'These fines show that we are serious about clamping down on such websites that can mislead consumers. We are aware that the people behind such sites have become adept at using search engine marketing to push these sites to the top of the pile when a consumer uses search engines to find numbers. 

'We have already worked with DirectGov to forward a number of sites to Google and Bing when these sites use premium rate numbers for information available for free from the government, and we continue to look for ways to work with search engine providers to stop activity that causes consumer harm.'

Be wary of unofficial sources of contact numbers

If you use search engines - such as Google - to find contact numbers for organisations, don't assume that a higher ranking search result will automatically give you the right number to call. 

Check the results carefully before phoning the numbers - if in any doubt, try to find the official site of the organisation you are trying to call. In general, non-sponsored links are more likely to be from official sources.

Unfortunately, sites that at best bend the rules can spring up faster than regulators can keep track of. When Which? did a Google search for 'child benefit helpline', all three sponsored links (in the 'Ads' box at the top of the page) were for sites which gave premium rate numbers to call for advice, although all three stated the cost of calling the number from a landline and that the same information was available for free from official sources. 

The official HMRC website giving free advice on child benefits appeared first in Google's 'natural' search rankings (immediately below the sponsored links). 

Which? informed PhonepayPlus about these sites, which said it believes that the public should not have to pay a premium rate for information that they have already paid for through a publicly funded body, such as information on child benefits. It sent Which? the following statement:

'PhonepayPlus is working with DirectGov and government departments to provide search engine companies with details of sites that add little value to the consumer, charging for information that is freely available elsewhere or a premium fee for a government service without offering an additional service. Google and Bing have both indicated that as a result of information received, some of those sites break their advertising rules and are no longer allowed to participate in their sponsored ads.'

If you have a complaint about premium rate services, let PhonepayPlus know on 0800 500 212.

Find out more about how to avoid paying for expensive phone calls in the free Which? guide. 

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