Phone and fax info lines can be a lot more expensive than you expect.
HOW MUCH would you pay for a fax telling you about the best mortgage deals or bank accounts? If you are not careful, it could be more than you think.

Telephone watchdogs have just fined a Crewe company, Bond Associates, pounds 5,000 for failing to tell people its phone service, selling bank accounts and mortgages, cost callers pounds 1.50 a minute. Neither the company's leaflets, nor the staff who callers reached, made it clear just how much the calls cost.

The fine was levied by Icstis, the body responsible for policing premium- rate fax and telephone services. Icstis has closed down the line, barred Bond Associates from operating premium-rate services for one year and alerted the police.

Rob Dwight, an Icstis spokesman, says that Bond Associates' main breach was "complete lack of pricing information". But Bond Associates also broke the rules by promoting the bank account service to individuals as well as companies. Mr Dwight says: "Their permission certificate was supposed to be for a business line. But all the complaints we had were from private individuals. Obviously, the service was inappropriately promoted as well."

The pounds 5,000 fine was imposed just before Christmas, and comes on top of another pounds 750 Icstis fine against Bond Associates made earlier in 1998. Bond Associates declined to comment on the fines when contacted by The Independent.

Late last year, Icstis fined Nationwide List Brokers pounds 500 for a fax service giving details of special offers from suppliers such as "leading banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, loan and financial companies". Recipients were told they would receive a fax every evening unless they faxed back a note asking to be taken off the list.

The faxes advertised were free. But the number given for cancellations was a premium-rate number, charging users pounds 1.50 a minute. Unlike Bond Associates, Nationwide List Brokers' promotional material does carry a footnote pointing out the cost of the call.

Eight consumers in the Midlands complained about receiving the faxes. Icstis found Nationwide List Brokers was operating outside the terms of its permission certificate by sending out unsolicited faxes.

Martin Fisher, Nationwide List Brokers' proprietor, says this service is no longer on offer, and that the promotional faxes were sent out by an employee who has since been dismissed.

Mr Dwight says: "As well as the pounds 500 fine - which they have paid, by the way - all their future promotional material for the number they have been given permission to operate at pounds 1.50 a minute has to be cleared by us."

Both Bond Associates and Nationwide List Brokers used telephone numbers with an 08971 prefix, BT's code for lines costing pounds 1.50 a minute. Other prefixes from rival operators, which carry the same charge, include the following: 09910 (Torch), 03313 and 03314 (Vodafone), 09919 (Cable & Wireless) and 089612 (Redstone).

Some premium rate lines, known as "fax-back" services, ask customers to dial a number on their own fax machine which will feed out the printed information promised. But it is you who pay for transmission of the faxes you order.

In 1997, Icstis fined a company called Telecom Express pounds 2,500 for a fax- back service giving details of repossessed properties in their own area, which were often hopelessly out of date. The service charged callers pounds 1.50 a minute, and lists regularly took more than 15 minutes to come through, creating a total charge of pounds 22.50.

Mr Dwight says that people getting unwelcome faxes promoting services like these should write to the company responsible and ask to be removed from their lists: "If they are still receiving faxes from the company after a two to three week period, then we may take it up as a breach of our code."

You can also contact the Telephone Preference Service or the Fax Preference Service. Their job is to circulate the details of people who want to be removed from their members' lists, but you may have to be persistent to get your own details deleted.

Icstis complaints: 0800 500212; Telephone Preference Service: 0800 398893; Fax Preference Service: 0541 554555