EU launches crackdown on rogue mobile services

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s consumer chief on Thursday launched a crackdown on websites offering mobile phone services such as ringtones after a probe found most were ripping people off, notably teenagers.

An initial investigation by EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva into 500 websites providing ringtones, wallpapers, news feeds or videogames worth hundreds of millions of euros found that 80 percent were “misleading” consumers.

“Far too many people are falling 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,” Kuneva told a news conference.

“We need to get a clear message out particularly to teenagers and children -- be on your guard. It’s all about the smallprint ... make sure you are not signing up for more than you bargained for.”

Failure by companies such as Jamba, jointly owned by News Corp NWSa.N and VeriSign VRSN.O, Vodafone VOD.L, Aspiro IRX.ST and Wiking Mobile to address Kuneva's concerns could lead to hefty fines or closure of their sites.

The value of ringtone sales in 2007 across the 27-member bloc, Norway and Iceland was estimated to be worth 691 million euros ($1.10 billion), the EU executive said, with ringtones estimated to make up 29 percent of the overall “content” market of 495 million mobile phones in Europe.

Among the irregularities found during the probe, carried out in June, were:

- unclear price information where prices were incomplete, did not include taxes, or where customers were unaware that they were signing up to a subscription.

- large numbers of websites did not provide some of the required contact information about the trader.

- “hidden charges” where key information was hidden in very small print or hard to find on a website or the word “free” was used to mislead consumers into a long-term contract.

Britain and the Czech Republic had the highest number of checked websites with 43 sites probed. Forty Czech operators will face further action while 39 British websites were found to have faults.

In 10 other member states -- Denmark, Spain, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Finland and Sweden -- all websites will also face follow-up action.

Editing by David Cowell