Mobile phone companies are misleading millions of consumers with rip-off charges for text messages, it has emerged, as telecoms watchdogs prepare to take action against firms unless they clean up their act voluntarily.
The Telegraph can reveal that Ofcom, which regulates mobile phone companies, has threatened Britain's biggest phone providers with a formal investigation over findings that some customers' tariffs, or "bundles", do not include so-called "standard rate" text messages to short code numbers. Such numbers are commonly used for popular text-in services on TV shows like BBC Question Time.
Where the charge is not included mobile phone contract customers must pay a premium for sending texts which varies between providers, typically between 10p and 20p per message. But now concern is mounting that some firms are failing to make this clear in their terms, leaving customers to rack up large bills without realizing.
Last night experts condemned the practice as a "disgrace" and said mobile phone companies must take responsibility for declaring the terms of their “standard rate” and the full terms of their packages.
Telegraph research found EE's website failed to list texts to short codes as a charge not included in price plans Credit: Alamy
Research by this newspaper found a number of mobile operators are failing to make clear to customers whether “standard rate” text messages to short codes are included in bundles as clauses are buried in confusing terms and conditions or in some cases entirely absent.
EE's website fails to include "standard texts to short codes" in its list of items excluded from price plans. However when questioned a spokesman said: "Typically text messages sent to short codes are for third party premium rate services. As the charge for the service is from an external company and not provided by EE, it is not included in any bundles we provide."
Vodafone said additional charges for standard rate texts to short code numbers "depended on the short code" with some free to use and others charging up to £2 but it declined to say whether all bundles were inclusive of standard rate texts to short codes.
O2 and Tesco Mobile claimed all standard rate texts to short code numbers were included within its bundles.
But their claims are at odds with revelations last month that some of their customers on bundles have been charged for a "free" text messaging service designed by Ofcom and the Telephone Preference Service to prevent nuisance calls.
The blunder, in which hundreds of thousands of people were charged after signing up to the service which was intended to be free, in part sparked Ofcom's concerns over confusing text charges.
Time for a national scam awareness campaign to protect the public Play! 06:24
An Ofcom spokesperson said: "Ofcom has concerns about the clarity of information made available to consumers about the cost of texting shortcodes.
"We have raised this with mobile providers and will expect them to review and, if necessary, clarify the shortcode information they give to consumers. If transparency does not improve, we may consider taking further action.”
David Hickson of the fair telecoms campaign, which represents consumer rights, said: “It is a disgrace that service providers are encouraged to use the phrase ‘standard text message rate’ whilst this alleged standard has no standard meaning for the majority of consumers, who pay for an inclusive bundle to cover their use of text messages.
"We are delighted that Ofcom has responded to our concerns by pressing the providers to sort themselves out on this issue. I am sure that both consumers and service providers join us in looking forward to news of their swift action to clarify the situation.”