Thousands hit by phone scams
But regulator has yet to implement safeguards
MORE than 100,000 customers are experiencing difficulties with premium rate telephone services every year, according to new figures.
But three years after the Government promised a crackdown on scams in the sector, the regulator ComReg is still talking to industry about what should be done to clean it up.
ComReg receives 1,000 complaints a month from irate consumers about premium rate services -- but its research indicates this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Premium rate services (PRS) are those where customers pay higher than normal rates on their phones to enter competitions, vote on reality TV shows, receive sport or news updates by text or download ringtones or games.
Premium rate services are the number one source of customer complaints to ComReg.
The research showed that a third of the population has used premium rate lines, and this rose to 45pc for children aged 11-14.
Total spending on this area is around €89m a year.
A detailed IPSOS/MRBI study commissioned by ComReg has found that only a fraction of those who experienced problems complained to the regulator. Most either do nothing or complain to their mobile phone company instead.
"Therefore there are potentially up to 2,000 end-users per week who may experience difficulties with PRS," ComReg's latest consultation paper said.
By far the biggest problem is consumers getting unwittingly locked into expensive subscription services on their mobiles.
This can result in hefty ongoing charges for things like horoscopes, football results, ringtones and music downloads.
It is over a year since ComReg took charge of policing the sector from a weaker industry watchdog Regtel.
But plans to impose tough restrictions on the industry remain on the drawing board.
ComReg launched a lengthy consultation process with industry and consumer bodies last December to come up with measures aimed at stamping out abuses. A draft code was drawn up in July.
However, instead of moving ahead to enforce it, ComReg has now carried out a second round of consultation to see if stakeholders are happy with their proposals.
The most important new safeguard the code proposes is a "double opt-in" system where consumers who sign up for a premium rate subscription service would be sent a text outlining the conditions and costs, and requiring them to confirm again that they want to sign up.
Industry lobbied furiously against this, with the Irish Phone Paid Services Association (IPPSA) claiming it would devastate their business and result in 97pc fewer subscriptions to premium rate services.
Asked why they had delayed the measures, ComReg said it had been advised under EU law to have a three-month 'standstill' notification period.
The IPPSA did not respond to requests for a comment.