Regulator set to target premium rate scams

Tougher regulation and control of premium-rate phone services is to be introduced by the phone regulator, Ofcom, and the industry body which regulates premium-rate phone services, Icstis, after thousands of customers complained to Icstis.

Tougher regulation and control of premium-rate phone services is to be introduced by the phone regulator, Ofcom, and the industry body which regulates premium-rate phone services, Icstis, after thousands of customers complained to Icstis.

The Independent's Save and Spend has warned readers over recent months against a variety of frauds and scams involving premium-rate phone services. Some consumers have been landed with telephone bills in excess of £1,000 because software viruses have contaminated their computers, causing their machines to access the internet via premium-rate numbers. The viruses have been spread through e-mail attachments and from website "pop-ups".

Consumers have also been misled into dialling premium-rate numbers through offers of supposedly free prizes, offered through text messages and newspaper "prize draws". In practice, the prizes usually come with expensive stipulations. One of the most recent was a phone offer claiming to be "Flight International", telling people they had won two free tickets to Florida in a "genuine" offer.

In fact, the offer was unconnected to the respected aviation magazine Flight International. Those seeking to claim their flights had to spend £12 on a premium-rate phone call to find that the "free flight" was only available subject to expensive conditions, including the booking of accommodation. The line was closed down by Icstis last week.

Ofcom, led by Stephen Carter, is now embarking on a two-month review of premium-rate number regulation, which is expected to give Icstis greater powers. But the scams often involve partnerships between a large number of organisations, some of which are not regulated by either Icstis or Ofcom and may be based outside the UK. Ofcom says it recognises that in practice the application of sanctions against companies and people involved can be difficult.

Neil Barrett, technical director at Information Risk Management, warns that consumers should maintain vigilance in using computers, even after stronger controls are put in place. While the impact of software virus "diallers" is reducing as more people use broad- band for internet access, tighter control of UK premium-rate phone services will not solve the problem. "These viruses can connect with overseas numbers just as effectively as with local numbers," he says.

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