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Telephones (Fraudulent Charging)

Volume 281: debated on Wednesday 17 July 1996

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To ask the President of the Board of Trade what assessment he has made of the level of fraudulent charging for international calls to premium rate telephone services available outside the United Kingdom. [36074]

International audiotext services are not billed in the distinctive manner of domestic premium rate services, and are not easily distinguishable by telecoms operators from other international services. I am therefore not aware of any assessments of the amount of fraud arising from international audiotext services.

Did the Minister read an article in the Scottish Sunday Mail a week ago, which documented a number of cases of people who had received large bills for calls to overseas premium rate services that they were adamant they had not made and no one else had access to their telephone lines to make? Does the Minister agree that British Telecom's approach—that those people are all lying or are grievously mistaken—is growing thin? Will the Minister use his influence with British Telecom, through the Office of Telecommunications, to ensure that the company takes seriously the increasing likelihood that serious fraud is being perpetrated?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an article from the Scottish Sunday Mail in June. We have considered it and British Telecom was concerned about the matter. I am not sure that the problem is fraud so much as misuse. Those numbers have been misused because of the failure to use the facility of the bar in equipment in a person's property. We are concerned whether there is genuine abuse of international calls. I am delighted that the International Telemedia Association has been formed and I hope that it works with the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services, which is considering premium rate services in this country. If those two organisations compare notes, perhaps the surface operators can devise a set of standards that can be commonly applied.

Notwithstanding that difficulty, can my hon. Friend confirm that British Telecom's price levels have fallen by more than 40 per cent. in real terms since privatisation, which was opposed by the Opposition?

The Labour party sometimes tries to be "with it" on modern information and communication technology. It opposed liberalisation all the way through the 1980s and 1990s, but that is the basis on which we now deliver competitive services. Opposition Members may wish to note that we recently liberalised international telephony, and that has already provoked British Telecom and Mercury to reduce their international call charges. We expect to license many other operators so that this country can be a genuine international hub for telephony and business.