EU cracks down on ringtone scams targeting teens

* Ringtone scams described as “serious breach” of EU law

* Fine of 2 million euros issued to Italian companies

* Vodafone, Telecom Italia among those fined

BRUSSELS, Nov 17 (Reuters) - The European Union said on Tuesday it had forced the closure or changes to more than 200 websites after a crackdown on mobile-phone ringtone scams that often target children and teenagers.

The EU’s Consumer Commission said it had investigated 301 websites since June 2008, after complaints from parents and consumers about scams in the ringtone market, worth 691 million euros ($1.03 billion) a year.

The investigation was carried out in all 27 EU countries plus Norway and Iceland, and resulted in a total fine of two million euros being levied against nine Italian companies, including the Italian arm of Vodafone VOD.L and Telecom Italia TLIT.MI.

More than half of the websites investigated featured cartoon or TV characters and asked for parental consent for subscriptions to ringtones, the EU said.

“Young people should not have to fall victim to scams like misleading advertising that lure them into ringtone subscriptions they thought were free,” EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva said in a statement.

Kuneva urged parents to take more care over their children’s access to download sites.

“Parents should not find nasty surprises in their phone bill, when their children by accident have signed up to more than they have bargained for,” she said.

As a result of the investigation, 54 websites were shut down and more than 150 were forced to change advertising after failing to make clear to consumers the charges they faced in breach of EU consumer law.

Europeans are estimated to own nearly 500 million mobile phones, with ringtones believed to make up nearly 30 percent of the mobile content market, in which consumers buy add-ons or other services for their phones.

“These results show that EU-wide enforcement cooperation can make a huge difference in cleaning up a market for consumers,” Kuneva said.

Editing by Luke Baker and Michael Roddy