Telecommunications: Chatlines facing new controls

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People whose phones are used to run up bills to "virtual" chatlines without their permission should be compensated, a telephone watchdog said today.

More than 15 million calls worth pounds 30m are made each year to the chat- lines in which callers exchange recorded messages rather than have live conversations. In the first half of this year, 210 complaints were received about high bills from "virtual" chat-lines, 55 of them about high bills and allegations of unauthorised use. Disputed bills range from less than pounds 10 to hundreds of pounds and "a handful" of bills running into four figures.

ICSTIS, the premium rate phone line watchdog, said although the number of complaints was small in relation to the high volume of calls, it wants all operators to put better systems in place to handle bill disputes.

Under the proposed new guidelines, the watchdog would have the power to compel service providers to compensate customers with valid claims if the dispute could not be resolved. It is also calling for a crackdown on under-18s using the services and wants operators to warn customers after each pounds 10 spent on a call to help them keep track of mounting costs. If accepted, the proposals would be binding on all virtual-chatline operators. Live chatlines were effectively banned from the telephone network after companies failed to pay into a fund set up to compensate people whose phones had been used without their permission.