In a recent case, the father of a young man with learning difficulties turned to a newspaper to highlight the problems he faced in challenging a £5,500 mobile phone bill, run up by his autistic son making calls and texts to sex lines.
The son is 21 but has a mental age of 12 and when the father, a serving army officer posted overseas, set up the mobile telephone contract he was assured that blocks would be placed on all premium rate and adult content.
But his son ran up the extraordinary phone charges using so-called ‘short codes’, which were not covered by the standard adult content blocks put in place by Orange when the contract was made. These five-digit numbers enable companies to charge calls and text messages at a higher rate than normal, such as £1.50 per minute or per text.
Explaining that he had never even heard of these premium charges, the father challenged the bill but was not successful in overturning the charges until he took the case to the media.
Ofcom data shows that 62% of children aged between 12 and 15 now have a smartphone and the bills for the bulk of those are picked up by parents. The premium-rate lines regulatory body, PhonepayPlus, has recently published a report called Children as Connected Consumers which highlights the growing number of parents making complaints after children have accessed inappropriate sites operating premium-rate lines.
As Alex Cook, consumer law expert with Eastbourne solicitors Stephen Rimmer LLP explained: “In many ways, mobile phones are a greater threat for children than using the internet at home, as a phone is not just giving them access to content, the nature of the contract means it’s also a payment device that’s capable of unlocking paywalls to adult and other premium content.”
He added: “Getting a new mobile phone is high on every teenager’s wish list but if a telephone is going to be used by a child then it’s vital that parents recognise that this is a significant contract that’s being entered into. They must tell the mobile provider that it’s for a child and find out exactly what can be blocked. Some providers can block short codes and some can block adult content, but not all of them can block everything.
“I’d advise anyone entering a contract for a child to confirm any terms in writing to the mobile providers, as many of these agreements are made over the phone and it can be hard to prove what was said or agreed at the time.”