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Paying for free helplines (20th Jul 12 at 8:29am UTC)
Crackdown on web ads that trick people into paying for free helplines Patrick Collinson- the guardian

Calling NHS Direct and many other helplines should be free, but numbers advertised on sites such as Google and Gumtree can cost up to £1.50 a minute

Regulators are to clamp down on adverts on Google, Gumtree and other websites which trick people into paying £1.50 a minute to ring free services such as NHS Direct or benefit helplines.

Government watchdog PhonepayPlus last month fined one premium rate operator £100,000 for plugging its "housing support line" on Gumtree and Loot, which promised to help find "DSS friendly" private rentals for people on benefits.

"Complainants were left on hold for periods and asked questions which significantly lengthened the call duration. Once these questions had been answered, consumers were then given a list of numbers for estate agents, which on further investigation had no connection to DSS friendly landlords."

PhonepayPlus fined London & Southern Housing for misleading consumers "into believing that they were offering advice and information which was not publicly available. In fact, this information was available from the DSS itself at a significantly lower cost."

Victims of the scams are typically vulnerable individuals who tap searches such as "NHS Direct" or "child benefit" into the web when seeking phone numbers. The first results that come up are often paid-for adverts that nudge the official, free or low-cost helplines aside.

Until recently Google listed several NHS Direct links above the official NHS Direct website. In one case, consumers were directly connected to NHS Direct at £1.02 a minute. "Complainants stated that promotional material on the provider's website,, misled them into dialling the premium rate number believing that it was the actual number for NHS Direct."

The company behind, featured in Guardian Money in March, Juno Apps, was last month fined £5,000 and ordered to refund all complainants. Google has since taken action to halt its "Adword" sponsored links being used to promote premium rate lines for free government services.

PhonepayPlus has issued proposals which intended to bring an end to the abuse of web advertising and promotions by "piggybackers". Chief executive Paul Whiteing said: "These 'piggybacking' call connection and/or signposting services have the potential to cause significant consumer harm. The controls we are proposing will ensure that consumers seeking access to public or commercial services are not misled into using premium rate services when they can obtain the same information at no or lower cost elsewhere. We think these are important measures to protect consumers, public and other services and the reputation of the premium rate industry."

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