The hidden cost of trendy ringtones

Published by Sarah Coles on 24 May 2010.
Last updated on 24 August 2011

mobile with music notes

Nearly two-in-five 11 to 17-year-olds have downloaded video or music to their mobiles in the last six months, and a third who subscribe to premium-rate services on their mobiles have no idea what they cost, according to a recent survey by phone paid services watchdog PhonepayPlus.

Sonia Jones, 13, from Swansea didn't have financial considerations at the top of her mind when she saw an advert offering a new ringtone. She wasn't particularly focused on the small print either.

She says: "Nobody has the ringtone that comes with their phone. Everyone else has Lady Gaga, and I wanted it too. I texted the number and got a new ringtone."

When her phone bill arrived the next month, her mum Karen didn't spot anything particularly untoward. She says: "It was more expensive than normal, so we had a chat about texting, and I thought that was the end of it."

However, the following month, when the bill was higher again, she checked the breakdown and realised £5 a week was being added to her bill.

On further investigation she learned that Sonia had accidentally signed up for a weekly subscription for new ringtones.

It's easy for teens to fall victim to the services on offer.

Part of the problem is that services can be misleading. Chief executive Paul Whiteing explains: "Young people enjoy buying the latest content for their mobile, but some fall prey to confusing pricing or unclear subscription charges."

This was all supposed to have been cleaned up. At the end of last year, the European Union completed an 18-month investigation into websites mis-selling ringtones, wallpapers and other mobile services, and announced that 70% of them had been closed down or corrected.

EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva says: "Young people shouldn't have to fall victim to misleading adverts that lure them into ringtone subscriptions they thought were free, and parents shouldn't have to find nasty surprises in their phone bill, when their children sign up by accident to more than they bargained for."

But the problems continue. Some text services and sites continue to offer misleading, rip-off services, and others have details tucked away in the terms and conditions.

As Karen says: "Small print isn't really Sonia's thing. What kid would sit and read small print?"

How to avoid unwanted charges

So how can you protect yourself and your kids? The first step is to understand the risks. Only a third of the parents surveyed by PhonepayPlus understand how mobile content services work, so it's worth getting to grips with them.

The watchdog has launched a website called, which contains useful information to help you understand what's on offer, what it costs and what's involved.

The second step is to talk to your children. If you make little headway with a serious financial chat, the site has a section for teens (and for younger kids too).

This also lets them download a free ringtone, which might be enough to persuade them to visit the site.

If they have already signed up for a service, you can cancel it by texting the number with the word STOP.

The number in question may be a traditional mobile number, or a short text code, which will usually be the numbers five, six or eight followed by a short word, such as DOG. Make sure you only send the word STOP (it doesn't matter if you use upper or lower case).

If they have signed up to two or more services from the same number, you'll need to send the words STOP ALL to each number to unsubscribe from them.

If that doesn't work you will need to complain to PhonepayPlus by calling 0800 500 212. The service will immediately be shut down while it is investigated.

Of course, it's difficult to stop kids wanting downloads, especially when all their friends have them. So if they really must have a ringtone, you need to shop around and make sure you're getting a good deal on a one-off download.

On the other hand, you can always take Karen's approach. "If Sonia wants to download anything else she can spend her own allowance. I'm pretty sure she'll start to take a bit more notice of the costs when it's coming out of her money rather than mine," she says.

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