I needed to contact The Guardian earlier this week. I did not have a direct line and I could not recall the switchboad main number. So, being lazy, I hit the search engine with " Guardian telephone number".
The first entry "need the number for The Guardian ?" pointed to a website which started with "guardian". But opening the page, I did not recognise either the website or the number. It started with 09, had nothing to do with The Guardian, and was a painful £1.53 a minute premium rate line.
Welcome to the strange world of Information Connection Signposting Services (ICSS). It means that a ten-minute call to an organisation that would normally be free (thanks to either a freephone number or the number being covered by my phone package) will actually cost me a whopping £15.30.
Had I used the 09 number, I would have been connected automatically to my real target, but at a hugely higher cost – plus possible expensive delaying tactics to spin out the call.
Cracking down on the premium rate hijackers
It is true that the premium number website does indicate (in small print) that it has nothing to do with the paper and that there are other ways of accessing its number at no charge. But I'm not surprised that premium rate regulator PhonepayPlus has received "a significant number of complaints about these services", offered by around ten sites.
The regulator expects to announce tougher rules in the next few weeks.
PhonepayPlus told me it was concerned about the potential for these services to cause significant harm, misleading people into thinking that the premium rate number they are being offered is the actual number of the organisation, which in turn risks undermining consumer confidence in the public or commercial organisations with which the ICSS associate themselves.
It added: "Vulnerable consumers seeking information or helplines may be especially susceptible to misleading promotions, and may suffer particular detriment in terms of cost. Consumers may also be subject to delays – either through being put on hold or by being asked to provide irrelevant details. They may in some cases be asked for personal and/or confidential data such as account details or passwords."
It stops short of demanding a complete ban but it wants search engines to clearly indicate that the link leads to a premium rate number, and it intends stopping delaying tactics to pad out the time – and the cost – of the call. Above all, it wants a "prior-permissions" regime where users have to agree to the use of these high-cost numbers beforehand.
It's not alone
PhonepayPlus is not the only organisation that wants to see changes made. Citizens Advice is also calling for a prior-permissions regime, describing the "misleading practices" of ICSS providers as "indefensible". It's also concerned that two new public policy changes - Ofcom's intention to make 080 numbers free to call from mobiles and the effect of the Consumer Rights Directive in requiring companies not to charge premium rates for customer service phone lines - will be undermined by ICSS.
PayPal has also spoken up, demanding that ICSS are not allowed to ask people for personal and/or confidential log in details (such as online account numbers or passwords) which relate to the company or organisation that the consumer is ultimately trying to reach, as has happened with PayPal users.
How the ICSS justify their practices
The providers justify what they do as "finding hard numbers".
One told PhonepayPlus: "The majority of services exist to assist consumers in finding difficult contact numbers buried within services or websites or simply unavailable and are offered and used as a time saving measure and as a chargeable service. The Premium Number use covers the cost of advertising and offers a valuable service.
"It is clear that if the consumer took the time and effort that they may be able to find the number required and it should be assumed that for most cases they are using the service because they are unable to navigate the relevant corporate website and are looking for a quick and simple solution. We agree that the general public should not be misled and the website should be clear in its purpose and offering. "