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Third Party Mobile Charges

Third Party Mobile Charges

Watchdog has received dozens of complaints from customers of all the big mobile operators Three, O2, Vodafone and EE- who said mysterious mobile phone charges had appeared on their bills. They only realised they’d been signed up to a subscription to services like a gaming or fitness app, at a cost of several pounds a week, when they checked their bills. Some of them didn’t notice the payments for months or years. All of them say they had no knowledge of ever signing up to the subscription, and that they’d never heard of the service. They say if they did sign up to the service, they must have done so unwittingly.

Phone paid services often use pop ups that appear, for example when the consumer is watching a video on the internet. The consumer will click a button that says something like ‘subscribe now’, then another button that says something like ‘confirm’. There have been criticisms that the sign-up process is not robust enough to prevent people from signing up accidentally, and should be strengthened- for example by adding an additional layer of verification such as a passcode.

The industry regulator is the Phone-Paid Services Authority (PSA). Current rules state that a minimum of two clicks are required in order to subscribe to a phone paid service. Consumers are not required to enter credit or debit card details in order to sign up. Regulations also require that the subscription is confirmed via email or text- and it seems text is the most common method. Some viewers we have spoken to say they were sent a text- but because they were not aware they had signed up to a service, they thought it was spam, and deleted it. Some of the case studies have struggled to secure refunds from their mobile phone operators, or have been refused refunds on the basis that they must have signed up knowingly to the service. In almost every case, the mobile phone operator has directed the customer to the third party company to deal with their complaint.

Rachael Khan was alarmed to discover that she had been paying £3 a week for a fitness app via her Vodafone bill. Her husband- who is not a wrestling fan- has a phone on the same account, and had also been charged for a wrestling app. They say that they did not sign up to, and had never used, the apps. Though the couple had received texts about the subscription, these were sent by the app providers and not by Vodafone- and so they deleted them, thinking they were spam. Rachael is very frustrated by her experience , and determined that phone paid services providers and mobile phone operators should change their practices around this issue. She feels that elderly, vulnerable or less tech-savvy people could easily end up paying for services that they do not want.

Denita Taylor discovered that she had been being charged for a subscription service that she had no memory of having signed up to, and had never used, via her O2 phone bill. O2 told Denita that it was not responsible, and advised her to get in touch directly with the app provider- which offered a “good will gesture” payment of £30- a fraction of the £80+ taken. Denita was outraged at this, and continued to complain. Eventually she was offered a full refund.

Statement from Vodafone:

"We, and the rest of the industry, work hard to protect our customers from any fraudulent activity. While there are many third parties providing services that customers value, we actively monitor providers to make sure they are acting as they should. This includes making sure any promotional material clearly flags where services are “paid for”, and that the sign-up process shows the prices prominently. We also expect to see two clear points where consent has to be given, a welcome message from the provider and, importantly, clear information on how STOP subscription and prevent any charges by responding to the messages.

If we find that the provider of the service is not complying with these requirements then we will issue a “10 day take down notice” on the service to ensure the issue is fixed. More serious cases are escalated to PSA for review.

We have examined [Rachael Khan’s case] and can confirm that we placed [a bar] on [her] phone to stop further transactions. [She was] also correctly directed to the third party provider to have the subscription cancelled.”

Statement from O2:

"We closely review the third party services that our customers can sign up to and only process payments with trusted third party companies that we know have payment verification measures in place to help protect our customers.

All of our customers have to go through a two-step verification process to sign up for any subscription service. In addition, they’re always sent a monthly reminder message informing them that they have signed up to the service, with details of the cost and how to stop it. We can confirm that all case studies you shared went through this confirmation process."

Statement from Three:

“The majority of customers who use premium rate services are happy with the service provided. We take incorrect charging by third-party providers extremely seriously and work with the rest of the industry and regulators to improve the service. We have banned a number of providers of these services from using the Three network over the past 12 months. We also ensure that any provider on our network sends a confirmation text message to a customer when they have signed up for a service with details of how to opt out.

When a customer contacts Three to query a payment we help our customers get in touch with the providers to get a resolution.”

Statement from EE:

"We’ve taken proactive steps to go above-and-beyond the PSA’s minimum requirements to make paying for services on their bill even clearer for our customers. In February 2018, we became the first UK operator to make it mandatory for all our third party content providers to require either an account set-up (with username and password) or four-digit PIN from customers when they sign up to any third party subscription service – and we remain the only operator with this extra level of protection.”

Statement from Phone Paid Service Authority (regulator):

"We share consumers’ concerns about subscription services. We announced a review of subscription services in March, which will look into how consumers sign up to these services. The review starts in the summer and should be concluded by the end of the year.

‘We have a track record of addressing consumers’ concerns. We introduced Special conditions in January 2017 for online competition and adult services that were very effective at reducing harm. Complaints to PSA from consumers have since come down by around two thirds.

‘The company providing the services brought to our attention (iFitness) is responsible for complying with our rules. The service provider (PM Connect) is currently under investigation by PSA.

‘Our rules are very clear: consumers must not be charged for content, goods and services without their consent. Where there is evidence that a service provider may be billing consumers without consent, we will take action. Our Tribunal has a range of sanctions available where it has determined a breach of the Code of Practice has occurred – including the ability to impose significant fines and to order refunds."

Statement from Mobile UK (industry body):

"Many premium rate services are enjoyed by mobile users, such as charitable text giving and entertainment. The industry works hard to ensure it only works only with partners that it trusts, but we are aware of concerns from users that some third-party service providers have failed to adhere to strict industry compliance procedures.

The industry invests heavily, and works closely with the regulator, to check and monitor compliance to drive out bad practice and ensure that all prices and terms are clear.

Where a mobile user has been charged in error, they should contact the third-party service provider immediately. If a satisfactory response is not received the case should be referred to the regulator, the Phone-paid Services Authority, at www.psauthority.org.uk

A helpful video that explains the process can be found here."

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