Icstis, the premium rate phone services regulator, has imposed a record £250,000 fine on Opera Telecom, the company which provided phone competition services for breakfast broadcaster GMTV, itself the subject of an Ofcom investigation over the phone-in scandal.
Icstis found that in almost four years at least 18 million callers had been charged for entering the GMTV competition but had no chance of winning. It estimates that the revenue generated by callers with no hope of winning was in excess of £20m.
The regulator has also threatened to ban Opera from running competition services for 12 months, subject to it undergoing an independent evaluation of its procedures and management structure to address “systematic failures within the company”.
Opera may also have to pay full refunds to complainants, pending a review by Icstis of the current refunds scheme.
The fine is the highest imposed by Icstis in its 21-year history. The watchdog says it is the “worst” case it has investigated in terms of the numbers of consumers affected and the amount of money at stake.
Chief executive George Kidd says: “The company showed a reckless disregard for the interests of callers, with scant evidence of any attention being given to compliance with our code of practice.
“We have ordered Opera Telecom to bring in outside consultants to sort out their business. If they don’t do this to our satisfaction, the bar on them running competition services will come into effect immediately.”
Ofcom has also been investigating GMTV’s role and responsibilities, which came to light as part of a series of scandals involving broadcasters misusing or abusing premium rate services. It is expected to report imminently on its findings and is believed to be considering a multi-million pound fine.
Other broadcasters to have been embroiled in the scandal include ITV, which has suspended broadcast of this year’s British Comedy Awards while auditor Deloitte investigates potential voting anomalies of the 2005 programme, the BBC, Channel 4 and Five.