Global Economics

Cracking Down on Ringtone Swindles


The EC says some Web sites trick customers seeking just a single ringtone into buying long-term subscriptions

The European Commission will on Thursday (17 July) announce that it will launch inquiries into ringtone websites across Europe, as a result of an initial investigation that found that many are tricking consumers into expensive subscriptions when they thought they were downloading a single ringtone for free.

It has checked some 500 websites offering mobile phone services such as ringtones and wallpapers—images to be displayed on-screen—in all EU states as well as Norway and Iceland, and has found that 80 percent of them need to be investigated further "for suspected breaches of EU consumer rules."

Some websites offered unclear price information, not including taxes. Others were "hiding key information in very small print", and did not provide required contact details.

Additionally, some portals lure customers into long-term contracts by offering "free" tunes; and many people thought they were buying a single ringtone, while they were in fact signing up to subscriptions, the commission found.

"Far too many people are failing victim to costly surprises from mysterious charges, fees and ringtone subscriptions they learn about for the first time when they see their mobile phone bill."

"There will be a Europe-wide enforcement action to track down each of these traders," EU consumer commissioner Meglena Kuneva stated in announcing the investigation.

Children are the main "victims" of such websites. Some 50 percent of them were found to be targetting a young public, notably by using cartoon or well known TV characters.

"We need to get a clear message out, particularly to teenagers and children: Be on your guard! It's all about the small print!," commissioner Kuneva said.

The UK, the Czech Republic and Romania had the highest number of checked websites, while in 10 member states — Denmark, Spain, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Finland and Sweden — all checked websites will need further investigation.

The initial commission inquiry took place from the 2 to 6 June and, following its findings, national authorities are now to contact the companies responsible for the websites, asking them to correct the irregularities.

Those companies that fail to comply may face fines or be forced to close their websites.

The national authorities are to report back to the commission in the first half of 2009.

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