The UK's telecoms industry needs to weed out the fraudsters and scammers ripping off punters or face the threat of the plug being pulled on the premium rate industry.
The telecoms industry also needs to invest more cash in premium rate service (PRS) regulator ICSTIS, which is swamped with complaints by customers who've been ripped off by telecoms crooks. In a Parliamentary debate on Tuesday, MPs agreed that something had to be done to crackdown on those fraudsters racking up millions by duping people into calling premium rate numbers.
While MPs called for the industry to put its own house in order, they also recognised that the regulator was struggling to keep up with complaints. With ICSTIS handling some 2,000 calls a day at the moment with many more not getting through, Conservative MP Sir George Young, described the regulator as being in "meltdown".
"On the current scam involving rogue diallers, the regulatory system seems to be in meltdown. Many have tried to complain to ICSTIS, but the line has been constantly engaged. The helpdesk is in meltdown because of a record volume of complaints," he said.
Unless the "regulatory failure" of ICSTIS can be rectified, Sir George warned that it could lead to a total ban on premium rate numbers, as has happened in other countries: "I personally would not favour that solution at this stage, but if I were the Minister or ICSTIS, I would use the threat of closure in the near future as an incentive for the industry to get its act together."
Sir George Young also said that ICSTIS needed more resources "simply to cope" insisting that the industry - and not the taxpayer - should stump up the cash. This theme was echoed by Liberal Democrat MP Richard Allan who acknowledged that while ICSTIS was on the "frontline" the telecoms industry needed to be "realistic".
Clean up your act. Or else...
"If it [the telecoms industry] values this part of its sector, it must put a hell of a lot more money into ICSTIS. It is as simple as that. It is the industry's responsibility to do so," said Young. "There should be no excuse for the industry funding a regulator that cannot answer calls from our constituents who have queries about the way in which the industry is operating.
"The industry is very profitable. A lot of money is being made. It is the industry's choice; if it wants the business to survive, it needs to put money back in to ensure that it is clean, safe and works in a way that is publicly acceptable."
Ecommerce minister Stephen Timms defended the role of ICSTIS, but accepted that it has struggled to cope with a massive increase in complaints about PRS: "If people cannot get through to ICSTIS to complain, the organisation will become impotent," he said. "The strongest message that today's debate should send the industry is that it needs to clean up its act. Otherwise, its future is in peril."
The number of complaints concerning rip-off premium rate services hit record highs last year. According to ICSTIS's annual report published yesterday, complaints reached an all-time high of 27,501 - an increase of 240 per cent on 2002. ®
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