Clearing up online confusion for consumers - top tips from the experts

PA 75/18

Consumers often fail to see important information about online services - which can lead to unexpected costs, according to new research.

When you are buying a service online, what do you look at on a website? Connection Services (for example) offer connection to a small number of organisation’s customer service phone lines -for a cost. This means that consumers may be charged more than if they had directly contacted the organisation.

Now, research from the Phonepaid Services Authority and the University of Nottingham, has identified a range of potential issues consumers face online and has produced some top tips to ensure customers know what they are getting and how to avoid unnecessary charges.

By examining Connection Service websites with novel eye-tracking technology, the research shows that consumers tend to look at the left hand side of the top third of a website.

The decision to purchase (by a consumer) is based on the information in that portion of the website and how ‘professional’ the website looks. This is the case whether the website is displayed on a phone, a tablet or a computer.

This means that consumers do not always see the disclaimers that businesses are legally required to place on their website, and subsequently means the consumer was often unaware of their ability to access services without charge.

The findings also reveal that consumers tended to use top search results, rather than looking for the ‘best’ search results.

Richard Hyde, Associate Professor in the School of Law at the University of Nottingham, and one of the authors of the new report, said: “The research demonstrates the difficulties for consumers when they are using the internet to find a service. We are hardwired to only look at the top of a webpage, and we have to consciously train ourselves to ensure we take in all the information available to us.

“We have devised a series of top tips on the back of the research to provide consumers with a really excellent roadmap for ensuring that they don’t get surprised when a bill arrives, and I will certainly be using them next time I buy online.”

The team’s top tips to consumers are:
  • When searching for a phone number don’t assume that the top search result is the direct contact for the organisation you wish to contact.
  • When assessing search results and websites, pay attention to the number and know how much you could be charged for the call. 0800 and 0808 numbers are free; 084 numbers charge up to 7p per minute plus phone access charge; 087 numbers charge up to 13p per minute plus phone access charge; 09 numbers charge up to 3.60 per minute plus phone access charge plus between 5p and 6 per call. 087 and 09 numbers are regulated by the Phonepaid Services Authority, and consumers may make a complaint about their charges to the PSA.
  • When assessing search results and websites, pay attention to the url. If you want to directly contact the company without third party intermediation does the url look like it is affiliated with the company?
  • Try to look at the whole website.
  • Just because a website is well designed do not assume that it is affiliated with the organisation that you wish to contact.
  • Look for any disclaimer. For example, if the service is provided by a third party, regulation requires that that it is clearly stated if ‘advice or assistance... is available direct from the relevant public or commercial organisation at no or lower cost.’
  • If you do wish to use an added value service provided by a call connection provider make sure that you are aware of the cost of the call. This should be clearly stated on the website.

Dr Hyde adds: “These top tips apply to all purchases online. Always shop around, and examine search results in detail. Don’t just focus on a portion of a website, and look at the content not the design. Ensure you are aware of the price that you are paying.”

Jonathan Levack, Head of Research and Communications at the Phonepaid Services Authority said: “We know that connection services are a concern for many consumers. We’ve received a number of complaints from people surprised at heavy phone bills for calling what they thought were helplines of well-known organisations.

“This research demonstrates how common and easy it is for anyone to miss key information when searching for a number. We’d urge consumers to take care when looking for a number, remember that the first result on a search engine isn’t necessarily the one they are looking for and always look out for key information, like the price or specific number.

“We have strict rules in place for these services. It’s vital that providers of these call connection services make the nature of their service clear on their website, in search results, and during calls. And if providers break the rules, we’re here to take action.”