Watchdog issues stringent fines and warns consumers to beware of the ‘search engine climbers' that direct users to premium-rate phone numbers
Phonepayplus has warned consumers to be careful when using search engines to find contact numbers for organisations.
The UK national regulator for premium rate services said unscrupulous companies are paying to appear high up in search lists and fooling people into calling premium-rate numbers, just to be told the correct number to call.
"There are a number of websites providing numbers that cost consumers up to £1.53 a minute, for information that is generally available for free elsewhere," explained Phonepayplus.
We carried out a Google search and found that although the websites do explain the costs of the calls per minute, and point out that the site is only a directory or information service, this information and any disclaimers are not immediately obvious.
The first thing a visitor to the site will see, very prominently, is what appears to be the number of the helpline of the company they are looking for; but which is in fact a premium-rate number for the directory service.
One person who complained to Phonepayplus said: "I was looking for a phone number for Sky TV. The first website I clicked... displayed Sky TV Customer Services and a premium-rate number which I almost dialled. This is clearly taking advantage of people who are looking for someone else."
The regulator issued the warning following an adjudication in which two companies, Customer Service Contact Numbers and Customer Service Numbers, were fined £50,000 each.
The companies have been ordered to give refunds where applicable.
Paul Whiteing, chief executive of Phonepayplus said: "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 SEM (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 free from the Government, and we continue to look for ways to work with search engine providers to stop activity that causes consumer harm.
"Before calling any number, consumers should look carefully at the numbers that any websites provide and remember that premium-rate numbers generally begin with 09 prefix."
Phonepayplus also said people should read the small print on a website, very carefully and understand exactly how much they will be charged and for what before they dial.
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