Phone Payments Alert: Web Promoted Subscription Services

June 20, 2009

Recent PhonepayPlus investigations into web promoted subscription services have resulted in breaches of the Phonepayplus Code of Practice being upheld by its tribunals for several reasons. The regulator has issued a notice which aims to clarify, in light of investigations and decisions by PhonepayPlus, what activities or actions may constitute a breach of the Code. The areas of concern are divided into a number of subject areas, as set out below.

Prominence of Key Information On-screen

Where consumers have to scroll down (or up) to view the key terms and conditions of a service, the tribunal has taken the view that this information is not sufficiently prominent. Service and Information Providers should therefore ensure that consumers do not have to scroll, regardless of screen resolution, to view the key terms and conditions of a service. Key terms and conditions should be placed on all website pages of the service that a consumer has to click through.

Web-based Entry of Mobile Phone Numbers

PhonepayPlus has continued to receive a significant number of complaints regarding unsolicited messages, which arise in part from a consumer’s phone number having previously been entered on a website.

Given the risks associated with web opt-in, and the difficulty in proving that a consumer has validly opted into a service (where they have opted in via a website), PhonepayPlus recommends that, where users are required to enter in their mobile phone number online, the risk is mitigated by structuring the page as outlined below: 

  • A brief statement that confirms where the service content (e.g. an IQ test result) will be displayed (e.g. mobile handset, next screen, etc.)
  • Mobile number field
  • Mobile number confirmation field (i.e. a second number field, directly below the first)
  • A brief paragraph summarising the key terms and conditions positioned directly below the Mobile number and confirmation fields. For example, subscription services should state that it is a subscription service and the cost of participating in the service
  • An unchecked mandatory tick box stating ‘I agree to the terms and conditions’, which the consumer must check before being allowed to proceed
  • Next/submit button

After prompting a consumer to enter a mobile telephone number onto the website, the next page generally then requires a user to text a keyword to a shortcode. PhonepayPlus is concerned that on this page key terms and conditions are not made clear to users. PhonepayPlus would expect all key terms and conditions, pricing and subscription information to be included on this page.

Promotion through Social Networking Sites

In addition, PhonepayPlus has noticed that social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace etc) are increasingly being used as a channel to promote these types of premium rate services. Recent monitoring and tribunal adjudications have highlighted the following issues with regards to this manner of promotion:

  • The manipulation of personal data (available on the social networking site) to make statements that are untrue.

For example, users should not be invited to participate in a phone paid service on the grounds that their friend (e.g. ‘John Smith’) has challenged them to an IQ service, when ‘John Smith’ has never participated in the service

  • Promotion of services that are removed from the reality of the service on offer.

For example, the promotion of an ‘IQ Quiz’ service which the user completes and then ends up being subscribed to a weekly horoscope service.

  • Initial calls to action (e.g. banners etc) not containing pricing information or subscription information, where the result of that call to action can only be obtained by participating in a premium rate service.

PhonepayPlus views these types of behaviour as misleading, as evidenced by the decisions of recent PhonepayPlus Tribunals.

Affiliate Marketing

It is important to note that all aspects of service promotion remain the responsibility of the service and information provider. For this reason, we would expect any affiliate to be fully informed of the requirements within the Code of Practice, and for the service and information providers to check that the affiliate is complying with PhonepayPlus’ regulations.

We hope that regulatory enforcement action will not be necessary and ask that all providers who are currently promoting or operating in ways which have been highlighted in this Notice as being of concern, cease to do so and remove any current promotions immediately. Failure to do so is likely to result in breaches of the PhonepayPlus Code of Practice being raised.