The Control of Misleading Advertisement Regulations 1988 have been wheeled out against a fax advertiser soliciting premium rate responses.
Topic: Misleading advertising
Who: ASA, OFT, The High Court, Planet Telecom, 192 enquiries.com limited, Box Telecom and 192 directory enquiries.net
When: February and March 2002
The story begins as far back as 1998, when the ASA adjudicated in respect of a complaint against Planet Telecom Plc regarding unsolicited faxes. Planet Telecom popped up in the ASA dispatches again in December 2000, when a complaint was upheld regarding unsolicited faxes sent by Planet Telecom's trading arm "192 enquiries". These were entitled "192 enquiries NEED YOUR HELP!" The faxes invited businesses to send their details to a premium rate fax line if they wanted to amend their entry or get a more prominent listing in the "www.192enquiries.com" internet business directory. The complaint was that all this was misleading in that it gave the impression of a connection with the official BT "192" directory enquiries service. Also, it appeared that the process of responding and achieving an entry in the relevant directory would be free of charge, whereas this was not the case. Following the "complaint upheld" ASA finding, Planet Telecom refused to give assurances that they would not repeat the practice, so in January 2001, the ASA referred the matter to the Office of Fair Trading. The ASA requested that the OFT investigate the matter under the Control of Misleading Advertisement Regulations 1988. Implementing an EU directive, these regulations entitle the OFT to take action in the courts in respect of misleading advertising if existing means of control such as the Advertising Standards Authority have failed to prevent the activity in question. The OFT moved into action, but not at a break-neck pace. It was not until March 2002, fourteen months later, that an injunction was finally granted under the 1988 regulations, on the application of the OFT. The effect of this was to prevent Planet Telecom and its named directors from indulging in this activity in the future.
Meanwhile, just three weeks earlier, the ASA was adjudicating on a similar complaint in respect of similar activity. This involved unsolicited faxes sent by an organisation called "Box Telecom" ("BT" geddit?) trading as "192 directory enquiries.net.". Four members of the public and Cheshire Trading Standards had complained to the ASA of the activity and on 13 February 2002 these complaints were upheld.
Why this matters:
It is not clear whether there is any connection between Planet Telecom and Box Telecom, but there seems every possibility. Clearly practices of this kind are not acceptable, but it is of concern that it took the OFT over a year to get the matter before a judge who was prepared to grant an injunction. Of concern also is the clear threat that another organisation,, with or without any connection to Planet Telecom, is now engaged in the same activity. The 1988 Misleading Advertisements Regulations have not frequently been used, and perhaps this case is an illustration as to why not, given the delay involved and the fact that as one organisation and set of individuals is picked off, another pops up to take over the same practice