Call Connection Service
Between 2015 and 2019 my company Premier Ventures Ltd operated a 118 style caller connection service to HM Passport Office.
This service was advertised with full transparency and clearly stated what the service was, that it was unofficial, that it was there for convenience, that there were cheaper ways to contact Her Majesty’s Passport Office and of course most critically, the cost to call before incurring a single penny. In summary everything a consumer needed to know before deciding whether to use it.
Zero Complaints over 5yrs
The service operated for 5yrs without a single complaint from a member of the public saying that they had an unexpected charge on their phone bill, that my advertisement was not clear to them or that they felt that they did not get what they paid for or anything else for that matter.
Not one person got in touch with us even though the website provided easy and free ways to contact us via: email, web form, fax and our postal address (should they wish to write in).
PSA Regulator Enquiries
In September 2017 the regulator of phone paid services in England called the “Phone-paid Services Authority” (also known as the PSA) advised me that they were launching an informal investigation into the phone line and it’s advertising. I asked the industry regulator if THEY had received any complaints and they said they had NOT.
Being that my company had not received any complaints either it seemed odd that there were considering there was potential consumer harm.
I of course co-operated, provided answers to all of their questions, copies of the advertising, call data (including the numbers of previous callers numbers which they could reach out to if they wished) and so was very confidant that being that they have confirmed themselves there was zero consumer harm that they’d see everything was in order and that would conclude the investigation.
Code of Conduct
Every phone line or SMS charging service in the UK is regulated by the PSA and all of these services are required to adhere to their “Code of Conduct” found here > to avoid being fined and potentially barred from the industry and so it’s very wise to keep on the right side of the industry regulator.
As you might expect all PSA “Executives” (the title for those who handle investigations) are experts at the Code of Conduct and so can easily see when there is something wrong with the promotion or operation of a service and so if she saw anything that needed changing / improving with my service she simply needed to say so and I would have implemented any and all suggestions to ensure FULL compliance. I of course proactively asked for this guidance from her.
Had the PSA Executive come to the opinion that the service/or its advertising was causing consumer harm to the public then they have the power to use the “Emergency Procedure” which forces the telecoms company who owns the number/s to immediately disconnect a phone line and take it out of service. As you can see here > this has been used dozens of times in the past.
Zero Changes Advised
The Executive also made no recommendations to change the advertising or the way the service operated. Something that obviously re-assured me that everything was compliant with PSA rules.
PSA Executive Disappears
The Executive then disappeared which didn’t surprise me as I had expected her to conclude that there was nothing more to investigate and that she would move on and prosecute an individual /company who was actually misusing phone paid services.
There are countless cowboys to catch instead (those sanctioned by the regulator here >) with their rouge services often generating 100’s of complaints & routinely making £100k to £1m in illicit profits at the publics expense.
Between the rest of 2017 and September 2019 I received nothing more then a robot email every few months that said “Thank you for your continued patience I will come back to you shortly“. Because it was the same email for two years I really thought nothing of it other than clearly there is nothing wrong with the service or its promotion & in all likelihood the Executive had just forgotten to formerly close the investigation at her end and so these emails were being sent in error.
Regulator Returns 2yrs Later
As mentioned above the PSA Executive first got in contact in September 2017. In September 2019 so yes two whole years later she posted and emailed documents stating that a formal investigation was being launched into the service.
She alleged that there were 7 breaches of the PSA Code of Conduct (found here>) and as per the rules of an investigation I was permitted to respond to each allegation in detail with my answers seen by their in-house yet so called “impartial” Tribunal.
I asked the Executive whether something had changed, had she received complaints from consumers saying that they did not find the advertising clear and/or that they found an unexpected phone charge on their phone bill? She responded stating the PSA was not in receipt of any complaints. Even though the service was on the PSA’s radar for two full years now.
The PSA Executive issued the investigation documents in September 2019 and the matter went before 3 legally unqualified individuals of their “Tribunal” in early December 2019.
PSA Tribunal Decision
To skip right to the end of the story their in-house Tribunal sided with their colleague on 7 out of the 7 breaches calling them “very serious” and calculated the consumer harm caused to joe public to be an absurd £1,350,000.00 (yes one million, three hundred and fifty thousand quid).
This from a service that received zero complaints over 5yrs from ANYONE saying they felt misled/ripped off.
My Version vs Their Version
I would not blame you for being sceptical that being that this article is on my own website where I have editorial control that it would therefore be bias towards me and that I may well put things in the best light and be selective with what the PSA alleged and what was said at the Tribunal regarding my company and so to prove that I’m willing to be transparent you are welcome to read the official Adjudication document on the Phone-paid Services Authority website here > meaning that you can read the rest this article of mine, their document and then make your own mind up.
Alleged Breach 1 – Transparency
This starts at the bottom of page 7 of their document (again here >). The PSA Executive asserts that rule 2.2.2. related to “Transparency” was breached because the user who was on a website that I operated (which of course had the means to contact us via email, web form, fax and postal address) was not given a “brand or trading name” when the recorded message gave out the caller connection service number. Even though this was not the case as the promotional recording included: “This caller connection service is provided by Britishpassportservices.co.uk” in it.
This was an inconvenient truth for them. However as shown on page 9 of their document the PSA Tribunal found against me, said it was a “Serious” breach of the Code and agreed with the Executive that a £175,000.00 fine for not having a trading/brand name on the promotion was fair & appropriate!
Alleged Breach 2 – Advertising Issue
The Executive raised issues with the recorded message hosted on the geographic 02036001984 number. This number routed calls to my staff between 2013-15 for passport advice and services related to applying for or renewing their passport i.e. clients paying us to lodge the documents and wait the 4hrs for the new one via the Premium Service. But due to financial issues with me not being able to afford staff to man the phone calls were re-directed to the recorded message.
As the PSA Adjudication document confirms, the exact wording of the recording was as follows…
“This number is no longer in use. You can contact Her Majesty’s passport office through our customer connection service on, 09055952952. That number again is 09055952952. Calls to this number cost £1.50 for the first minute and then £1.50 for each additional minute. Callers must be 18 years or over and have the bill payers’ permission to make this call. This service is not affiliated with the government or Her Majesty’s passport office. This caller connection service is provided by Britishpassportservices.co.uk. Please visit the website for the full contact details. Once again to be connected to a passport office agent please redial on to 09055952952.Thank you for your call goodbye”
The issue the Executive raised was that in her personal opinion only, callers may have disconnected the call before hearing the cost per minute. Claiming that it took “10 seconds” (yes 10 whole seconds…) to get to the next part of the message which stated the cost per minute. This conclusion of course something that could NOT be evidenced from consumer experience.
As mentioned earlier. during the course of an investigation the PSA received FULL call data from our network operators on the phone lines under investigation. This data includes not just the number of callers, the times and dates of the calls but most importantly in this case the precise LENGTH of each call to the SECOND. How strange she did point to proof from this call data that individuals were routinely ending the 02036001984 call before hearing the pricing information.
As their document reluctantly admits: “The Tribunal acknowledged that the Executive had not submitted evidence that callers had hung up before hearing the cost of the call.”
Furthermore whenever someone chose to re-dial and use the caller connection number they were told within SECONDS of the cost of the call AGAIN and so even if they had not been paying attention when listening to the recorded message they are REMINDED and so it’s impossible for them to later receive a phone bill they did not expect.
She also asserts that text containing the essential information related to the caller connection service posted on our website such as: what the service is, the cost to call, that you need the bill payers permission etc was “small print”. It was no such thing. It wasn’t tiny font or in grey/white font it was the SAME size font as other wording on the website.
Yes, the phone number itself was in larger font but every phone charged service from competition lines, chat lines, call a psychic services make the phone number larger. Whilst the PSA document contains a number of screen shots of the website and promotion you will see that the Executive chose not to screen shot the web page advert showing this so called “small font”. I presume it was to save embarrassment.
The Tribunal absent or any complaints and proof from the 0203 phone line call data to back up their theory once again rubber stamped the Executives breach and agreed that this warranted another £175,000.00 fine. Yes another one, so we’re at £350,000.00 so far.
Alleged Breach 3 – Other Services Unavailable Issue
The Executive for some reason had issues with the fact that the passport advice, document checking, passport lodging and collection services were unavailable during the time that she monitored the website and service (which was only between March 2018 and September 2018).
This was due to the fact that between July 2015 and September 2018 my finances were subject to a Restraint Order due to and ongoing Trading Standards investigation meaning that tens of thousands of pounds was frozen and beyond my reach (public records can confirm this). Therefore I could not afford staff. Plus changes to HM Passport Office services meant that some services were not available with new ones due to launch in due once I had my funds released.
As Companies House records confirm, in November 2018 I setup a new company to provide the above services (here >) and since then they have been re-activated and still offered to this day. The Executive may well not have known that because she claims the last time she viewed the website and tested the service was in September 2018 even though she launched her investigation with the indictment period of wrong doing being 2015 all the way until September 2019 or she does know and pretends not to. As it would clearly give her extra work to do.
Regardless of the reason for why OTHER services that we offered were not being offered at the time as you can see from the bottom of page 12 onwards I strongly disagree that this led to any consumer harm whatsoever.
Even if more people did call the 0203 number and some expected to be put through to a live person and not a recorded message so what? It’s an 0203 landline number that is free from virtually all landline and mobile phone packages and if you didnt want to listen to the message and only wanted to speak with a person your free call would be 5 seconds long if that.
Nonetheless the Tribunal once again absent of any consumer complaints to back up both their opinion and the Executive considered this a “Very Serious” breach of the PSA Code of Conduct. So serious in fact that it warranted a fine of even greater magnitude then had come before. This time they determined a huge £250,000.00 was fair and reasonable. Even though I had a court ordered Restraint Order financially preventing me from hosting the suspended services!
Alleged Breach 4 – Complaint Handling
The Executive stated that I had “breached rule 2.6.1 of the Code because Level 2 provider had failed to provide consumers with a quick, easy and fair complaint process to have their complaints or queries resolved effectively“.
The ONLY place the 0203 number was advertised was on our own websites and so the user would be on our website at the time of the call and so should they have any questions, concerns or complaints they could easily reach out to us via: web form, email, fax or writing to the company address. All of this information was found in the footer of each and every web page.
However the Executive disagreed this was sufficient as a “quick, easy and fair” way to handle any complaints as there was no telephone number to speak with customer services advisor. She then remarkably asserted that there could well have been many complainants as these web savvy users may not know how to complete a web form / send an email! The Tribunal promptly agreed and placed it in the “Very Serious” category along with a fine of £200,000.00 for no other reason then not having a helpline phone number as one of the ways to get in touch. Yes, seriously!
Alleged Breach 5 – Annual Registration Delay
This has got to be most pathetic “breach” of the PSA Code of Conduct that they have raised. Basically to host phone paid services in the UK you need to pay an annual license fee to the regulator. The fee was £155 in 2018/19. Due to the PSA reminder emails going to an old email account that was no longer active (as in their system would have been told, message not delivered) the license was not renewed and it expired on 18th July 2019. However it was renewed in August 2019 and BACKDATED meaning that there was no free period or benefit for renewing later.
The Tribunal “did accept however that the failure to register had only occurred for a relatively short amount of time” however they agreed with the Executive that this was a “Very Serious” breach of the PSA Code and that apparently it “undermines the public trust into phone paid services” and so said a £50,000.00 fine was fair and appropriate!
Can you imagine a debt collection agency saying that you’re a month late paying a £155 bill and so we’re going to add a fifty grand penalty on top! Fortunately protections exist to save us from such ludicrous terms called: Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. I quoted this legislation in my response to the PSA but they just ignored it. Making no reference to it of course in their adjudication.
Alleged Breach 6 – Website Issue
The Executive alleged that in her opinion the .co.uk websites were to similar to the HM Passport Office website which of course was Gov.uk. Even though the layout, colour scheme, wording, use of a company logo along with text in the header, body and footer making it very clear this was a private business was present. Furthermore at the time the websites were HTTP and not HTTPS and so on browsers you would find the warning “Not Secure”. Something that you would never, ever see on a government website. I’m sure you’ve seen this yourself when browsing online…
I also referenced extensive research carried out by reputable research firm IPSOS Mori (details >) who were commissioned to look into how consumers interacted with government websites and third party websites. The extensive findings showed that consumers could EASILY tell the difference between the two so long as the wording, colour scheme, layout and a number of other obvious factors was not mirroring Gov.uk which of course in this case were certainly not. Intentionally not.
As usual the Executive/Tribunal did not go into detail about why all of my points & those from those surveyed by IPSOS Mori were wrong and the PSA was right nor did she of course reference any consumers who have contacted them as proof that the website addresses were misleading. They just said: we’re right and you’re wrong. So terribly wrong in fact that this breach of the PSA Code of Conduct incurred yet another £250,000.00 fine for my company!!
Alleged Breach 7 – Website Issue #2
Even though the Executive confirms that in the header of the websites there is a link to the HM Passport Office on Gov.uk which gave an alternative and cheaper way to contact the Passport Office and that the body of home page referenced this and that wording such as “Independent”, “Not Affiliated” and “Optional Third Party Services” were used the Executive and Tribunal absent once again of any research, consumer comments or complaints to prove their position confirmed this was not good enough and a breach of the PSA Code worthy of another £250,000.00 fine.
So there you have it that’s how they came to an absurd £1,350,000.00 (one million, three hundred and fifty thousand quid) calculated based on the “consumer harm” caused.
The Executive noted that we offered a 100% no-quibble refund on any caller who wanted it. Bizarrely the Tribunal said that we “failed to supply any evidence of refunds“. Huh? That’s because my company and the regulator have not received ANY refund requests over five years. That’s no excuse they’d likely say!
The Tribunal then slammed me for not making the changes they have ONLY just adjudicated on and that the Executive only raised in September 2019. Asserting that I knew what conclusion they’d come to and should be penalised for legitimately having a very reasonable opinion that differed from there’s. It also gives no weight to the fact that in September 2017 I asked the Executive if there was any specific changes the PSA would like to see in regards to the way the service was operated or how it was advertised. She provided no such guidance.
The Executives arrogance reaches a whole new level when she said that the service would not have received a single caller over 5yrs had it not been for the breaches. This again based on 0 people saying they felt misled or that they’d not received the service they’d paid for.
Just a reminder that the process for securing this caller connection number was: First arrive on the website >> Second call the 02036001984 number which tells you there is a 118 style caller connection service to HM Passport Office, this message provides the number, cost per minute, that you need to be the bill payer etc. Only THEN after you’ve received that information does the consumer decide whether they want to use the service. If they don’t then the consumer does not incur a PENNY IN CHARGES!
So this not a service someone can use in haste / by accident. They have to go through numerous steps and be paying attention and make an informed decision to hang up the phone and re-dial onto the caller connection service.
The Tribunal noted my objections to the obvious fact that in September 2017 the Executive could have raised the concerns she had and said change this and change that then we’re happy.
Instead the service was left to operate for 2yrs receiving thousands of calls and revenue in a “non-compliant” way. Furthermore they heard of my objection that the Executive confirms she STOPPED monitoring the service and advertising in September 2018. One whole YEAR before the investigation was launched and being that the company had a huge financial injection of funds in Autumn 2018 and the third party services were re-launched then (and still active to this day) it is not fair or lawful to say: everything between September 2018 & September 2019 was the same.
PSA Fine Discount
The Tribunal of course did not want to address why an indictment till September 2019 rather then September 2018 was fair and lawful of course, they skimmed over that point but they knocked off £50,000 quid due to the “unacceptable delay” it took to bring this matter before the Tribunal plus another whopping £1,100,000 on the basis that I’m a small company. So just £200,000.
Cute but also massively undermining the credibility of the fine amounts they come to. A moment ago my service had caused £1.35m of consumer harm now you’ve just knocked off £1.15m as a discount and now you say the same service has caused just £200 grand of consumer harm. Huh?!
Legality of Investigation
In addition to everything mentioned above about how flawed the investigation was it wasn’t even conducted lawfully. Premier Ventures Ltd (Companies House profile here >) was the company that operated the phone line from start to finish however the Executive chose to indict Umbrella Support Ltd (Companies House profile here >) instead and falsely claimed that “Premier Ventures Ltd formally known as Umbrella Support Limited” when Companies House confirms they are TWO completely different entities and cannot be considered one of the same in the eyes of the law.
This is as daft as sloppy as indicting Joe Smith for a crime when it was John Smith you meant to criminally charge thinking meh, both Smith brothers are scumbags, close enough. As you can see here > all PSA paperwork was in the name of Umbrella Support Ltd and so the PSA investigation was not even conducted lawfully let alone properly in line with the Companies Act 2006.
Appeal to “Independent Reviewer”
There is an internal “review” process where a legally trained individual on the pay-roll of the PSA will “independently review” the adjudication and then determine whether they want to sanction their own paymaster. This appeal process is as flawed and bias as it sounds.
However I nonetheless jumped through the hoops and tried to get him to see the outrageousness of their conclusions and the absurdity of finding my company guilty of the 7 breaches, the absence of any complaints & the research. It just being “this is our opinion and you’re guilty because we have the power“.
As this individual was legally trained I also raised the fact that the PSA Executive had not conducted the investigation lawfully and instead of admitting that and making amends chose to do a sloppy job in pretending the that two limited companies were of the same to cover her tracks / prevent having to re-issue the paperwork and proceed with the investigation lawfully.
Unsurprisingly he came back confirming his employers position saying the breaches raised and fines issued were appropriate. Of course he chose not to touch the bomb shell which was the fact that the indictment was not even conducted properly, that the wrong company had been adjudicated against and that the PSA was unlawfully trying to connect two companies together because it suited their needs. His conclusion was that everything was in order and that my company needed to pay the £200,000 plus the costs incurred for investigating the case.
High Court Appeal
As a quasi-government body there is an appeal process via the courts called a “Judicial Review” where a High Court Judge can review the case however as you can imagine that ain’t cheap.
I was quoted at least £50,000 by a legal firm for a specialized solicitor and barrister to get this to trial and there was always a chance that they could win on a few points and the Judge could not award ALL of the legal fees incurred. Even if 75% were awarded, that’s £12,500 to the bin!
The PSA know this and it protects them from almost every party they adjudicate against from having their case heard in the REAL courts. Due to the horrendous costs involved most cannot afford to have the matter heard by a REAL court and instead have to live with the findings of the PSA kangaroo “court”. Justice is just to expensive.
Therefore due to the humongous financial commitment and risk that would have been needed to fight this in the High Court I reluctantly decided to not to take my appeal any further.
Guilty By Association
Speaking with my lawyer and deciding not to proceed with the appeal even though the grounds were very strong was a very hard decision to come to as “giving up” also leaves the impression that they were right on every single ground and that every single thing they said was 100% correct.
Being that they are a quasi-government body the authority and the fact that people very rarely go into the details of a regulators findings and just rely on the headlines that xyz company was up to no good and fined £200,000 it’s enough for most people to undoubtedly think you’re a scumbag.
Thank goodness for search engines such as Google. For those who are interested in hearing a balanced view can not just find their website but this article too. They can then read both and come to a BALANCED conclusion on where the chips really lie.
That is the best that I can hope for however perhaps its a blessing in disguise as a litmus test. As potential employees/friends/colleagues who accept things on face value rather those who are not critical thinkers who then weigh up both sides of a story and then make an informed decision are perhaps not the kind of people I wish to invite into my life anyway.
Enforcement of £200k Invoice
The PSA “regulator” is thankfully not a statutory body. They are a quasi-government body and so nothing more then a standard limited company meaning their “adjudication” is nothing more then an invoice for two hundred grand that needs enforcing like any other unpaid invoice to a company.
That being via debt collectors or the courts. In January 2020 the PSA advised me that their self-imposed 2 week deadline for making payment was up & they were considering issuing a winding up petition via the High Court to shutdown my company on the basis that it was insolvent (details >).
Based on everything I have said so far regarding the absurdity of their findings and illegality of their investigation I was happy to advise them to be my guest. If they really considered their investigation and £200,000 fine lawful then prove it.
I was more then open to this scenario on the basis that it would finally put the matter in the hands of a legally qualified High Court Judge who could properly apply English Law to the matter and I am sure easily see how their bias agenda and conclusions based solely on their opinion and not the letter of the law or case law (cases that have come before it) and so quite easily tear into their invoice and “sanctions” amounts of £50k here, £200k there. Yet the PSA issued their invoice in December 2019 we are now in March 2022 and they have taken no enforcement action whatsoever. I wonder why… For they do claim I owe them a huge £200,000 after all.
Banning Richard Howard from the Industry
As just stated no debt collectors have been round, they have not try to declare the company bankrupt via the High Court (as threatened) even though they have an unlimited budget as an industry funded regulator and so it was not a matter of limited funds on their side.
Instead of raising this matter with the judiciary and confirming their position that their investigation was grounded in law they decided to take the safe and internal option of issuing brand new internal proceedings to ban me from the telecoms industry for 5yrs.
This is something they could do within their power and something I could not fight against due to their warped conclusions without significant expense and so in February 2021 I (Richard Howard) was deemed to be such a liability that they chose to ban me from the industry for five years. Pfft.
This again was incredibly frustrating as having my name plastered around as this so called renegade obviously did my reputation no favours. Plus the obvious presumption for this “rogue” being barred from the industry is that he’d clearly run some rip off phone service and pocketed thousands, maybe tens of thousands via some sinister con. Yet as I have said 100 times in this article, there were zero complaints, zero refund requests and zero evidence of consumer harm whatsoever over a five year period. If you’re a “conman” shouldn’t there at least be some victims?!
It’s clear to me that the Phone-paid Services Authority were willing to use any means necessary to push me out of the industry. They have had it in for legitimate 118 style caller connection services for years and since September 2017 when they first asked about my service were just looking for a reason to pounce. No complaints came and so eventually they had to proceed without them and just pretend there were complainants out there and they were misled/harmed. Pfft.
A colleague of mine in the telecoms industry who read the same PSA adjudication document that you’ve been reading said that to him it read like a school yard argument. I say one thing and they respond with yeah but you’re wrong with the process repeating again and again. That’s a pretty accurate summary in my opinion & because they have the power I am the once who’s “wrong”.
The fact the service was not causing consumer harm is also backed up by the PSA’s behaviour. In September 2017 if it was operating / being promoted in such a non-compliant way why not use the Emergency Procedure to shut it down overnight? Why not issue instructions there and then to change, this, this and that? Also why the HUGE gap between contact and giving up monitoring in September 2018 only to announce a formal investigation one year later in September 2019?
The PSA Executive confirms on page 28 of the Adjudication document (here >) the case had been placed in the “queue” for investigation. In other words it was considered such a low priority and such a low risk for consumer harm that it was one of those: when we have time to get around to it “investigations”.
Clearly in the mean time the PSA Executive and her colleagues were actually using their time to go after the REAL cowboys that generate hundreds of complaints and mug people off by tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds. Find details of many of these rouges here >
So there you have it. The devil is in the detail as they say. I really appreciate you taking the time to read this article & for being a critical thinker, wanting to hear both sides of the story before coming to a conclusion. Did I mention the service received zero complaints over 5yrs by the way? 😉
Richard Howard of Premier Ventures Ltd
Have Questions for Me?
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