Home truths: free ring tones set off my alarm bells
Rachel Johnson finds out the truth
about 'free' ringtones
Would you regularly hand over money to a company to provide you with a service
you did not want and did not realise you were paying for? Well, nor would I, but
I did, my son did, and if you look on the Grumbletext website, you can read
about the many, many other people who did, too (so many that there's a
transatlantic class action suit in progress against Jamster! a provider of
ringtones, wallpaper and music to mobiles).
We were in Liverpool, having just watched the Reds smash Crystal Palace at
Anfield. Leaving the ground, we passed a small sign, pinned to a lamppost. It
invited us to download a free ringtone - I think it was You'll Never Walk Alone.
It seemed to catch our jubilant, teary mood.
The word "FREE" was in big black letters on the sign. I texted the number. It
sent me a link to a website. I tried, for a while, but the whole process didn't
seem to work on my primitive Nokia. I gave up. After that I received 74
unsolicited text messages. They came in threes, mainly. I would delete them,
tutting. I had no idea that they were costing me £1.28 each (of which about 20p
went to Orange). I had no idea I could stop them by texting "STOP ALL" back to
the five-digit number.
In the end, a free ringtone that I never received cost me £111, in a shady,
shabby involuntary transaction that the industry (which has grown fat on the
scam) calls "reverse-billing".
Reverse billing means you pay a premium rate merely to receive repeated texts
purporting to provide a service you often never asked for in the first place.
When I looked into it, by entering the five-digit number into the regulator's
site at www.icstis.org.uk, it turned out that I was being sent the SMS texts by
an "aggregator" called MBlox. When I called MBlox, which suspiciously had access
to all my mobile-phone records, an agent passed the buck to a service provider
called, reassuringly, Stealthnet.
When I called Stealthnet, which also had instant access to my mobile records,
Stealthnet claimed that by merely texting the number to get something for free,
I was in fact "subscribing to a club" and "entering a financial contract". Which
is what Jamster! does, too. Jamster! suckers your children by offering them a
"free" ringtone (you have to subscribe and register before you get it).
Unfortunately, this activates a subscription programme, same as Stealthnet.
As MBlox is the one that sends out the messages, Jamster!, which only provides
the content, escapes the scrutiny of the regulator, ICSTIS, whose title I can't
be bothered to spell out (telephone information services watchdog). There are
527 complaints being investigated by the regulator against the aggregator
MonsterMob, and 1,387 against the aggregator MBlox. Against Stealthnet, there
are 63 complaints - not including this one.
When my son made the mistake of texting Jamster!, he'd just loaded £10 credit on
his mobile. He got three texts back costing him £9, so he didn't have enough
credit left to call me on mine to tell me where he was. I can only conclude that
companies that flog ringtones and jokes via targeted advertising during
afternoon television are basically making their profits by stealing children's
pocket money. Classy.
ICSTIS has been bombarded with so many complaints that it has finally done
something. The companies that send out these repeat premium-rate texts can do so
only up to a limit of £20 before alerting the recipients. That's not good
enough. I think they should spell out how much each text is going to cost before
they send it, not after, and give the option to cancel with each contact.
What puzzles me is the blind stupidity of the mobile companies in not forcing
companies such as MBlox to make nice with customers, rather than rip them off.
In the short term, they get added revenue from the traffic. But in the long term
they're going to lose out big time. I'm not going to sign up to expensive new 3G
services. Nor is my son (if he does, I will confiscate his mobile).
If everyone reacts in the same way, the companies really are in trouble.
Stealthnet took only £111 from me. But Gordon relieved the big four mobile
companies of a staggering £22 billion for the 3G licences at the height of the
dotcom bubble. Talk about candy from a baby.