By Sue Emmett
Senior producer, consumer affairs
Thousands of mobile phone users have been charged up to £1.50 a time for text messages they say they never asked for, a BBC News 24 investigation has discovered.
Customers may be paying for unwanted services
Some customers may have signed up by mistake but others are the victim of a mobile scam.
The premium rate services regulator ICSTIS (the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services) has now warned text messaging companies to put their house in order or face action.
Touch of a button
Texting services - such as ringtones, games, jokes and football scores - can be fun.
Many services - such as transport news and weather forecasts - can also be really useful.
Most of them operate according to strict guidelines.
But some don't.
They mislead the customer into accepting a service they don't want and charge a premium rate that can land the customer with a bill of thousands of pounds.
No-one should receive a text message that they have to pay for without having subscribed to the service beforehand.
The trouble is there are many ways that you can "subscribe" without realising it:
Rob Dwight of ICSTIS, which is clamping down on premium rate texting scams
Add to this the prospect that some unscrupulous text companies may be tempted to break the rules completely by not mentioning in their terms and conditions that you have to pay; or refusing point blank to stop sending you messages when you ask - then you've got a huge problem.
- If you receive a text inviting you to subscribe to a service and you text back "no thanks" or something less polite, the computer at the other end can't read, so it may take your reply as an agreement to subscribe.
- If you fill in a coupon for a competition in a magazine or newspaper that entails giving your mobile phone number, you may find that the tiny print at the bottom also subscribes you to a linked text messaging service.
- If you visit a website offering a free ringtone which you accept, the terms and conditions of service may state that you must also take regular paid ringtones as well.
The Trading Standards Institute says this is now the biggest growth area in complaints.
Adrian Harris, who runs the consumer complaints website Grumble Text, also says he has been inundated with hundreds of complaints.
"We are just a small website. But we've had between 400 and 700 complaints in the last year and I believe we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.
"It really is this year's problem."
Regulator ICSTIS has acknowledged that mobile phone companies - which may unwittingly send out texts on behalf of unscrupulous text messaging companies - have received several thousand complaints related to subscription services in recent months.
Two text messaging companies are also being investigated for potential fraud.
Dental receptionist Tracy Sutton, who has three sons and lives in Bolton, was one of the thousands who have complained to her network provider.
"I am sure I haven't signed up for anything. I am so cautious. When I got the first message I was disgusted. I was running round the house saying how dare they?"
She is also worried that her sons might face the same problem - with the added danger that they could run out of credit, preventing them from making urgent calls.
Following the News 24 investigation, the mobile phone companies have been warned that consumers must have clear information about the services they are sending out for the text companies.
Consumers must also be told how to unsubscribe.
"Great care should be exercised in using the word 'free'," say the guidelines.
ICSTIS spokesman Rob Dwight said that while in some cases it was the consumers' fault, a fair percentage of the people who had complained had been misled.
"We have seen some companies, whose terms and conditions aren't very clear at all, or they're too lengthy, or too small," he said.
"What we need are the companies to actually give the important information up front, make it easily legible, and then people can make their own minds up and that won't result in complaints."
He added: "We have fined companies and closed companies down for breaching our rules in terms of these subscription services."
He pointed out that if the companies sending expensive text messages don't tell people what the cost is going to be, or refuse to cancel the subscription when users send the 'stop' instruction, ICSTIS can fine or bar them.
"If we think fraudulent activity's also gone on, then we won't hesitate to refer the matter on to the police," he said.
Phone users are advised to message STOP to end unwanted texts, and ask the network provider for redress.
Formal complaints can be made to ICSTIS.