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Premium text messages can come at hefty price

TORONTO, Feb 23 (Reuters Life!) - Consumer activists are warning cell phone users who order products and services such as ring tones and games through text messaging that they could be signing themselves up for pricey subscriptions.

A file photo of a person sending a text message on their cell phone. Consumer activists are warning cell phone users who order products and services such as ring tones and games through text messaging that they could be signing themselves up for pricey subscriptions. REUTERS/Files

Premium rate text message services are cropping up everywhere, from voting on reality TV shows to receiving songs and jokes of the day.

As the industry continues to grow in the United States, Canada and Europe, cell phone carriers and regulators are looking to better protect consumers from misleading promotions.

“Nine of ten cases when we get complaints it is because someone in the household, and it’s usually the kids, has subscribed to services, sometimes unintentionally,” said Taanta Gupta, spokeswoman for Rogers Wireless, Canada’s largest wireless carrier.

Some services charge a one-time premium fee as low as a few cents but the fine print at the bottom of certain TV advertisements and Web sites may include a continuous paid subscription that can run much higher.

“This is a big scam,” American consumer advocate Edgar Dworksy said in an interview.

The editor of the consumer awareness website MousePrint.org, also warned about “cramming”, or charges for any premium text service on phone bills that consumers insist they never signed up for.

He said the charges could be explained by carriers recycling phone numbers.

“Consumers really are the first and best line of defense when it comes to either using premium text messaging or being charged for premium text message services they didn’t want,” said Lisa Hone, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission in the United States.

Hone said customers should file complaints directly to the FTC as well as their carriers. Consumers are also urged to scrutinize their phone bills.

“You wind up getting billed for something you didn’t know there was a charge for,” said Dworsky.

“Doesn’t this cry out for some rules?”

The British watchdog for premium services, Icstis, has taken action against several service providers over the past two years for misleading mobile subscription promotions.

The British premium-rate services industry is worth 1.6 billion pounds ($3 billion), the biggest in the world, according to Icstis.

The U.S. market is also exploding with an estimated 130 billion text messages sent in 2006.

To address the possible risks to consumers involved with premium text messaging, Washington-based CTIA - The Wireless Association, an international organization representing all sectors of wireless communication, is launching a monitoring and auditing program next month.

“There certainly have been problems,” said Joe Farren, a spokesman for the association.

“If it becomes clear that new or different best practices need to be implemented, I think that would happen,” he said.

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