The European Commission has conducted an EU-wide investigation into websites offering services such as ringtones and wallpapers and found that 80pc of sites checked were suspected of breaching EU rules.
The investigation, led by EU consumer commissioner Meglana Kuneva, covered more than 500 websites in 27 countries.
Many of the websites – some 50pc – target children and young people and the problems discovered by the EU include unclear price information where prices were incomplete, did not include taxes and customers were unaware they were signing up to a subscription.
A large number of these websites did not provide some of the required contact information about the trader.
Other problems related to misleading information where information was hidden in very small print or hard to find on a website. Often, the word ‘free’ was used to mislead consumers into signing up to long-term contracts.
While Europeans own more than 495 million mobile phones, ringtones make up an estimated 29pc of the overall mobile content market in Europe. The value of European ringtone sales in 2007 was estimated at €691m.
According to the European Commission, seven countries including Norway, Finland, Sweden, Latvia, Iceland, Romania and Greece are publishing the names of the websites found to breach EU consumer rules.
The consumer laws concerned include the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive 2005, the Distance Selling Directive 1997 and the E-commerce Directive 2000.
The sweep by the European Commission represents a new kind of EU investigation and enforcement action whereby member states carry out simultaneous co-ordinated checks of webpages for breaches in consumer law.
“This EU-wide action is a direct response to hundreds of complaints from consumers that have come in to national authorities,” Kuneva explained.
“Far too many people are falling victim to costly surprises from mysterious charges, fees and ring-tone subscriptions they learn about for the first time when they see their mobile phone bill.”
Kuneva said there will be a Europe-wide enforcement action to track down each of these traders. “But we need to get a clear message out particularly to teenagers and children – be on your guard!
“It’s all about the small print! There are many reputable traders out there, but to be safe buying these services, check the fine print every time and make sure you are not signing up for more than you bargained for,” Kuneva warned.
As a result of the investigation, companies will be contacted by their respective national authorities to clarify the breaches identified. Failure to do so, the EU says, will result in legal action leading to fines or closure of their websites.
The various authorities will report on their progress in the first half of 2009.
By John Kennedy