The regulation of premium rate telephone numbers

What is a premium rate telephone number?

A premium rate telephone number is a telephone number which begins with 070, 084, 087, 09 and 118 (and five-digit mobile short codes). Premium rate telephone numbers are mainly used for premium rate services including competitions, TV voting, horoscopes, chat lines, adult lines, recorded information, professional advice services (for example, computer support help lines) and directory enquiries.

Premium rate services refers to the provision of premium rate telephone services, as well as other services that are charged to phone bills or pre-paid phone accounts, for example, interactive ‘red button’ television services.

The cost of premium rate telephone numbers varies widely from approximately £0.75 to around £3 per minute (they are most expensive from mobile phones). Such calls might be shown on phone bills as a premium rate call or a high premium rate service.

Who regulates premium rate telephone numbers?

The Communications Act 2003 gave Ofcom the responsibility for regulating premium rate services. The Phone-paid Services Authority (PSA) (formerly, PhonePay Plus) is responsible for the day-to-day regulation of the premium rate services market on Ofcom’s behalf. All providers of premium rate services are required to register with PAS before providing services. Registration must be renewed annually.

How are premium rate telephone numbers regulated?

The PSA is the UK’s regulator for premium rate services which come within Ofcom’s definition of Controlled Premium Rate Services (“CPRS”). A CPRS is, essentially, a premium rate service falling within one or more of the following categories:

  • the service is obtained through a Special Services Number (except an 0843/4 number) and charged at least 5p per minute for BT customers
  • the call is through a PRS Number and the Service Charge for the call is at least 5.833 pence per minute or 5.833 pence per call (plus VAT)
  • the service is obtained other than through a Special Services Number, or a PRS Number, and the charge is at least 10p per minute
  • the service is a Chatline Service, it is Internet Dialler Software operated, or it is a Sexual Entertainment Service

The PSA Code of Practice (14th Edition) sets out the rules with which all providers of premium rate services should comply (please note that adherence to the Code is voluntary if the service does not come under the CPRS umbrella, above).

What obligations does the Code of Practice impose on service providers?

The Code of Practice imposes several obligations on providers of regulated premium rate services including in relation to:

  • Transparent and accurate pricing information
  • Treating consumers fairly and not to mislead them
  • Not to invade consumers’ privacy in an unreasonable way
  • Not to cause harm or unreasonable offence to consumers or the general public

The Code sets out detailed expectations of providers of premium rate services; and contains specific provisions to protect and safeguard against the exploitation of children.

Are service providers legally bound by the Code of Practice?

The Code of Practice under section 120(3)(a) of the Communications Act 2003 covers all providers of premium rate services situated in the UK (or which are accessed by users in the UK). However, compliance with the Code is voluntary, unless the service comes within the meaning of CPRS – in which case compliance is obligatory.

What powers does the PSA have?

The PSA has the power to investigate complaints relating to breaches of the Code of Practice and to monitor premium rate services. It also has the power to apply sanctions in the event that the Code is breached.

What sanctions are available to the PSA?

Adjudications by the PSA are conducted by the members of the Code Compliance Panel (Panel) sitting as a formal tribunal. There is a range of sanctions available in the case of non-compliance, and the Tribunal has discretion as to what sanction to apply in each case, depending on the seriousness of the breach in question. The Tribunal will consider the impact of the breach, as well as any aggravating and mitigating factors.

The sanctions available include:

  • Requiring a service provider to remedy a breach of the Code of Practice
  • Issue a formal reprimand
  • Fining a service provider (up to £25,000 per contravention in very serious cases)
  • Requiring a service provider to bar access to services and/or numbers for a set period of time
  • To prohibit a service provider, information provider and/ or any associated individual (for example, the directors of a service provider) from involvement in or contracting for the provision of a particular type or category of service or contracting for the provision of any premium rate services for a set period of time
  • Requiring a service provider to pay refunds to its users
  • To direct that a network operator suspend access to some or all numbers allocated to a service provider