Experts have warned that consumers should check their bills if they receive any unwanted texts after some customers found charges of up to £3 per text message had appeared on their bills.
The texts are sent out via marketing companies to advertise services for third parties.
Mobile phone companies admit they are powerless to stop the texts, which are often of an adult nature or sign the user up to regular services for weather forecasts or horoscopes, unless the consumer blocks all pay-by-phone transactions.
One mobile phone user found a marketing company had added £12 to his bill within a few weeks, despite him never having knowingly given his number out online. Another Scottish customer contacted his local Citizens Advice Bureau after being charged £5 a week for a fortune-telling service he insists he never signed up to, while another man lost more than £40 in charges for weather information texts he received over a period of two months.
Pensioner John McDonald, from Falkirk, was forced to pay out £25 to have his number changed to escape a subscription to £3-a-time text messages he had not signed up for.
“I have never signed up to anything online and I am rarely on the computer,” said McDonald. “I noticed there were extra charges on my bill for text messages. When I looked at my texts, I found there were some from a number I did not recognise which told me I had been unsuccessful in a prize draw.”
When McDonald contacted his mobile phone provider, he was told they were powerless to stop the texts, which were coming from a company based overseas. He was left with no other option than to change his number, costing him £25.
“It caused me a lot of inconvenience and money to change my number, but it was cheap at twice the price as the amount I could have had to spend on these text message bills was endless,” he said.
In some cases, the texts have been investigated by regulator PhonepayPlus – an agency employed by Ofcom to regulate premium rate services, part-funded by the mobile phone industry – and companies have been forced to hand back the money. However, hundreds more mobile phone users may be paying extra charges every month, without noticing them on their bills, consumer groups have warned.
Citizens Advice Scotland said it had seen a number of cases over the past year involving unsolicited text messages which have cost the recipient money to receive.
It is believed some companies are illegally using data purchased from third-party organisations such as online retailers to set up accounts. Although it is legal to sell on data if a customer has checked a box during a purchase saying they are happy for the company to do so, the recipient of the data is not allowed to charge the customer for messages without their consent.
“Sending unsolicited text messages to consumers who have not opted into direct marketing is unlawful and we would encourage anyone who is getting them to report them to their phone operator,” said policy officer Fraser Sutherland.
“Don’t reply to an unsolicited message as this will alert the sender that your number is active. Instead, forward the message to the spam reporting line for your network.
“It may seem trivial to some if it’s only a couple of pounds here and there, but that soon mounts up. And there is a bigger principle at stake as well, which is to stop this kind of con from happening, and protect others from it in future.”
Market by Brand, based in East Kilbride, is a marketing company behind text subscription services and insists subscription texts are sent only to numbers which have signed up to receive them.
“If someone receives our texts, they have signed up to our service,” said spokesman John Anderson, adding that some numbers may have been signed up by someone who is not the bill user – for example, a child using the phone, or a friend or workmate.
“However, if someone believes they have not signed up, we would certainly look into what has happened and do our best to resolve the issue.”
Mobile phone companies are able to offer customers a fixed level of compensation as a gesture of goodwill, but are unable to refund the money as they say they are powerless to control pay-by-phone payments. Only the marketing companies can refund the payments, and in some cases can be forced to do so following an investigation from PhonepayPlus.