EU Closes 54 Web Sites for Consumer Law Violations

The European Union published findings of an 18-month investigation Tuesday finding that 301 Web sites that sold mobile phone ringtones, wallpapers and other services had "serious breaches of EU consumer law," according to a statement.

"All of this work has been about tackling hidden charges and nasty surprises in the small print of Web sites that rip off and cheat consumers," said Meglena Kuneva, the European Commission member in charge of consumer protection, during a press conference.

Of the sites investigated, 70 percent of the cases have been resolved, 159 sites have been corrected and 54 sites have been closed.

The investigation, called 2008 Ringtone Sweep, found three main problems: unclear pricing where consumers wouldn't find out about the cost of a ringtone or wallpaper until they received their montly invoice; failure to provide complete trader contact information; and misleading advertising that promoted ringtones as free when in fact they were tied to a contract. More than half of the Web sites specifically targeted children by using cartoon characters.

"These days, people want to be careful about their spending and for that they need transparent prices. They need to be able to compare offers, shop around and find the best deal. For these mobile products, younger consumers are particularly at risk," Kuneva said.

In February and May nine companies in Italy were fined €2 million (US$2.5 million) for not providing clear information to consumers. The companies were Telecom Italia, Vodafone, Wind, Dada, Zed, H3G and Zeng, Fox Mobile and Tutto gratis.

"Another type of violation was found related to unsolicited supplies. We found traders send unclear SMS, [and] by replying consumers are unwillingly activating subscriptions to ringtones and wallpaper download services," said Paolo Saba with the Italian Antitrust Authority, who also spoke at the press conference.

According to the Commission, Europeans own more that 495 million mobile phones. Ringtones made up an estimated 29 percent of the mobile content market in Europe in 2007 amounting to about €691 million in sales.

The Commission will work to conclude outstanding cases and plans to conduct several other sweeps and joint actions in 2010.

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