Tax credit cuts: Families worried about impact of reforms targeted by 'parasitic' hotline scams

Exclusive: Online redirection services target people searching on Google for phone numbers for key public services

Matt Dathan
Online Political Reporter
Thursday 12 November 2015 21:07 GMT
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Online redirection services are funnelling callers through to expensive numbers starting with 0843 or 0847 to make easy profit
Online redirection services are funnelling callers through to expensive numbers starting with 0843 or 0847 to make easy profit (Corbis)

Families worried about the impact of tax credit cuts are among internet users being targeted by “parasitic” online scams that advertise premium-rate phone numbers for government agencies.

The online redirection services target people searching on Google for phone numbers for key public services.

Instead of giving the free contact number, they redirect callers through expensive numbers starting with 0843 or 0847 to make easy profit.

The most common victims of the scams are people calling HMRC, the DVLA, Student Finance and the Jobcentre. The Independent has also established that people searching the internet for tax credit cuts information are among those being presented with premium-rate numbers.

Brown warns over tax credits

Consumer rights campaigners are calling on ministers to introduce new powers to close down the firms behind the scams, which are known as Information, Connection and Signposting Services (ICSS).

Those using the 0843 numbers are charged a 7p per minute “service charge”, which goes straight to the scammers, but they are then charged up to 45p per minute extra by their network provider. It means large corporations such as Vodafone, EE and BT benefit from the online scams and make even more profit than the con men themselves.

The consumer expert Paul Lewis said it was the responsibility of the Government to close down websites that advertise the premium-rate numbers.

“The Government should find these websites and either create powers or use its powers to get these websites closed down because they offer absolutely nothing except expense,” he told The Independent.

“So where it relates to a government website, such as HMRC and Student Finance, then I think it’s the Government’s job.”

The 0847 numbers charge 13p a minute but are forced to be more transparent about their services because they come under a different government watchdog.

Consumer campaigners want all phone numbers starting with 084 to fall under the scope of the premium-rate services watchdog, PhonepayPlus. Currently only those charging a service charge of 8p and above are regulated by PhonepayPlus, which has stricter guidelines governing ICSS providers.

David Hickson, from the Fair Telecoms Campaign, said it would take a simple move by Ofcom to include all numbers charging a service charge under the umbrella of Phonepay Plus and would help bring the “deceiving behaviour” to an end.

“The ‘rip-off’ call re-direction services, known as ICSS, are unquestionably ‘Premium Rate Services’. It is quite absurd that they can be operated (with a Service Charge of up to 7p per minute) outside the scope of Phonepay Plus,” he said.

Ofcom said it had considered giving PhonepayPlus power to regulate 0843 numbers but decided against it due to “concerns about proportionality”.

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