Friday, 23 December 2011

Beware! Churchcastle and The Sun - Wordsearch Competition ends in huge phone bill

Churchcastle run adverts like this in The Sun newspaper. If you enter they'll start writing to you inviting you to enter some competitions which could cost you very dearly.


Recently a 90 year old relative got into a spot of bother. She racked up a phone bill for £120 phoning a premium rate word search competition line. She became very frustrated when she didn't win - even though the letters she received promised she was just a step away from a big cash prize. What she didn't realise was that each phone call she made was costing her almost £10. Money she could ill afford to lose. I've been helping put things right.
She likes entering word search competitions. She's also an avid reader of The Sun. On 26th October The Sun carried a full page advertisement feature on P26. It promised readers that for an 18p phone call (from a BT landline) lasting less than 1 minute they could win £7,000 if they could identify the words hiding in the published grid of letters.


The small print carries all the Terms and Conditions and call charge information. PhonePayPlus (the premium rate telephony regulator) rules say these charges should be shown prominently with the telephone number. Apparently this ad doesn't break their rules. Can you believe it!


18p isn't much, even to a pensioner, and it's much less than the price of a stamp, or a lottery ticket. She phoned the number and correctly identified the words and left her address so they could send her the prize if she won. Soon afterwards she received a series of letters congratulating her on her word search skills. 'Only 2% of the newspaper's readers had identified the words' (note the clever choice of words - not readers who entered, but all the readers).

The highly personalised letters urged her to make another phone call - as an even bigger cash prize was now within her grasp.

Another Churchcastle promotion which ran in the Sun 24th September 2011. Word search fans could enter a competition to win an 'Emerald' Pendant complete with 'Gold tone' chain. Read the very small print and you'll discover how much the prize will really cost you.



The 'Emerald Pendant' Sun readers received - complete with 'Gold tone chain' and its certificate of authenticity signed by an un-named 'gemologist'. Impressive...er no. The telephone call to 'win' this cost Sun readers who ressponded to Churchcstle's advert £9.18 - after a call lasting 5 minutes 55 seconds at £1.53 a minute and an extra £4.59 if they stayed on the line to receive matching earrings - 2 minutes 55 seconds also at £1.53 per minute.

These letters praising her word search skill may also have started because of another advert in The Sun she responded to in September. This full page ad also contained a word puzzle - but there was a prize for every reader who got the correct answer - an emerald pendant on 'gold tone' chain. A cheaper prize you have never seen. In fact one may also be lurking inside cheap Christmas Crackers.



But whichever 'bait' lured her in, both advertisements were run by the same company. Churchcastle are based in St Leonards on Sea, Sussex. I searched for some information about them online. I discovered Churchcastle were taken to the High Court by the Office of Fair Trading in 2006 (click to read) for running similar competitions. In the sample case presented to the court over 446000 mailings had encouraged 56,000 recipients to phone a number costing £1.50 a minute - £7.50 in total - believing they had won a major prize including £10,000 in cash, a fitted kitchen, or a widescreen TV. In fact they received a low value voucher booklet. The court instructed Neil Frogley the promoter behind Church
castle to clean up its act, or they would be back in court.

An example of one of the letters Churchcastle send to Sun readers who respond to the competitions advertised in the newspaper. This letter appears to suggest that the recipient is eligible for a £7000 prize - all they have to do is phone (I can confirm the call costs £9.60 - thanks to using a magnifying glass on the small print). The letter says 'Cash prize delivered by secure DHL Express Couriers immediately after winner announced' and advises 'we would also like to ask that you condsider our using your initials and home town for future publicity purposes'. Nice work. Snake oil salesmen would be envious of copy this enticing.


Since 2006 it appears Churchcastle have continued to promote competitions which manage to stay within the letter of the various rules on advertising and premium rate telephony but at the same time extract large amounts of cash from gullible entrants.

I telephoned Consumer Direct and a very helpful woman from Trading Standards (at the Council where my relative lives) called me. She knew all about Churchcastle. Then I phoned PhonePayPlus who regulate the use of Premium Rate telephone lines. They also knew about Churchcastle. In fact they have had a string of complaints about the company and its very expensive competition lines. But apparently none of the letters or adverts break their rules.

Then I phoned The Sun, where I was put through to parent company News International readers advertising department. A very helpful woman assured me Churchcastle was a reputable company, and they were always sending in letters proving how many prizes they had awarded. However she understood that my elderly relative had not meant to spend so much money entering their competitions and immediately agreed that she would ask Churchcastle to refund the money.

Shortly afterwards a cheque for £120 arrived made payable to my relative and cleared without problem. She continued to receive the letters telling her she was within a call of winning a big cash prize, and then they stopped. She still took some convincing that she wouldn't win if she dialled the number.

My elderly relative was embarrassed about the money she lost.
I wonder how many other people have unwittingly run up a huge phone bill thanks to Churchcastle?

I also complained to BT about the original 18p call advertised in the Sun - which was charged at 21p on the phone bill. BT said it was the phone service provider's mistake. PhonePayPlus told me the call should have cost 18p. I couldn't get to the bottom of it, but BT promised to refund £10 as a goodwill gesture for all the trouble. Why is everyone offering money not to take this complaint more seriously? Is it such a profitable enterprise for The Sun, BT and Churchcastle?

Finally I considered complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority about the ad in The Sun, and the 18p call which cost 21p and resulted in such expensive letters. But as all the ASA do is instruct companies not to run offending advertisements again I decided I might as well shout out of the window as write the email.

Has this happened to you, or someone you know?
The Office of Fair Trading and the High Court are the only way to stop what looks like, and feels like a 'scam'.

Remember if something looks like a scam, and feels like a scam it probably is a scam.




IIth October 2012 - I have published a dramatic update to this story here. Churchcastle has been fined £800,000 and told to refund people who entered these word search contests.

16 comments:

A dream said...

Good for you for getting the lady's money back!! And you're question is brilliant - why ARE BT , The Sun and Churchcastle so keen refund if they really think they haven't done anything wrong? They are ripping off vulnerable old people that's why and even if it is within the letter of the law it's still a scam!

jangles said...

I see this blog began some time ago and cannot believe that such companies are 'legal'. Am presently visiting my 85-yr old mother from South Africa and discovered - to my disgust - that her several £9+ telephone calls every month are to enter Wordsearch competitions! She cannot remember doing this, but it has obviously been going on for some time. It is a disgrace that these organisations are allowed to continue to prey upon such as the elderly who often have no knowledge of what they are letting themselves in for! I shall certainly be writing to them directly and also trying to remove her details from junk lists. Thank you for highlighting such outrageous practices.

Anonymous said...

ChurchCastle Ltd (The Conning WordSearch people) are back to their old tricks again! Unfortunately, I responded to a Tv Advert witb some hidden word which was so obvious to find, and unfortunately, I was under the impression I would actually win something! Luckily after I did only roughly 6 calls to this ChurchCastle Company which is run by a known conman, I immediately knew I was duped. The reason for responding to these Con Artists - remember who they are, the are TV Wordsearch People who tend to have adverts TV, The Sun and various magazines, etc is that, they are using clever words, and for a while, I had some short illness and ChurchCastle Ltd took advantage of my personal issues. Those 6 calls cost me £45 extra to my PhoneBill (but I can deal with this, but can an Old Sick Pensioner?), but think of this, a vulnerable person could phone these Bastards for over 4 to 6 times a week, why, because CHURCHCASTLE LTD run by some cunning conman is using the oldest tricks in the books. All this fancy writing, this rubbish about 'only a few percentage of folks got this right' etc is a tactic of SUCCESSFUL CONMEN. And anyone reading this, I will give a message now
STAY AWAY FROM ANY WORDSEARCH COMPETITION YOU SEE IN THE SUN, TV ADVERTS, ETC. THERE ARE NO WINNERS AND THIS COMPANY IS USING THE LEGAL LOOPHOLE OF BEING LEGAL BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT CHARGING ANYONE MONEY TO TAKE PART IN THIS SO-CALLED 'COMPETITION'. THE CONMAN BEHIND THIS COMPANY, IS MAKING MONEY OUT OF CALLS FOR THIS, AND ANOTHER THING, THERE ARE NO MASSIVE PAYOUTS AT ALL.
Look people, if you want to win a large amount of money, I personally would suggest you do a Lotto Ticket or have a small flutter than PAY THE WAGES FOR A CHEAP CONMAN WHO HAS FUCKED WITH THE WRONG PERSON THIS TIME. I have all his details, and he will be going to prison for this!

TheChiefExecutive said...

Anon - 20 May. Alarmed by your comment that Churchcastle have begun running a new batch of word search competitions I did some research today and it would appear this is correct. A £10,000 prize word search competition featured in The Sun appears at www.wynnington.co.uk. A search of Companies House shows that Wynnington Ltd was registered on 29th October 2012 and is owned by Churchacastle Ltd - October 2012 was the same month Churchcastle was hit with a £800,000 fine from the regulator PhonePayPlus.

A phone call to enter this new competition costs £3.60 (1 minute phone call) plus your operator's access charge. The T&C state that at the end of the call there is the opportunity to stay on the line for 2 further minutes (charge £7.20) to enter a further contest. The T&C also indicate there is one £1,500 winner of this contest and all the correct entrants have a chance at the £10,000 prize which is a pooled prize of all the contests run by the Wynnington company. Whether this makes the £10,000 prize claim misleading is something that the Advertising Standards Authority and The new Phone Paid Services Authority would have to rule on. You can contact PSA on 0300 30 300 20 Monday to Friday or at www.psauthority.co.uk.

All companies who operate these competitions must include a non-premium telephone enquiries number. Wynnington is 01797 309000. If you believe you have been over-charged or misled you should file a complaint with them.

If anyone else finds this page as a result of searching on google for these details please post a comment. When I originally contacted PhonePayPlus they didn't want to know. Let's hope the new regulator PSA is monitoring this.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I also have done the churchcastle word search back in February. They took a lot of credits. When I first recieved their letter they used my mother's name instead of mines, which I was shocked about because I never gave them that detail for them to send letters using mother's name. I phoned them to opt out, which again drained my phone credits. I emailed them also just incase I was not clear about opting out, they responded saying they acknowledged my email and removed me from mail listing.

I thought that is the end of it, but nope. Early this month, I recieved another letter still using my mother's name. I got livid and wrote a harsh email telling them how I will be seeking legal action if they do not stop sending this scam to my mother, and have proof with email requesting them to opt me out. I am not sure if it works. I just do not know how they got my mother's name.

They are scammers, took so much of my credits. If they send me letters again, I will be taking action because my mother is not happy on how they got her details.

TheChiefExecutive said...

Anon 24th May - The rules state that Wynnington must remove you from further mailings if you request this. The PSA rules only require them to use a standard rate phone number which is 01797 309000. Wynnington also have a 'contact us' form on their website or you can write to them at Wynnington Customer Services, Website Division, PO Box 133, Rye, TN31 9EU. It is possible you will need to make a separate request to remove your mother's name from further mailings. I would do this in writing. As you of course realise, it is by collecting contact details for previous users Wynnington continue to send information about new competitions they hope you will enter. If you believe the information you had available in February when you entered the word search contest was misleading you should ask for your phone money back. You can also complain to the PSA on their website www.psauthority.co.uk. It is important everyone who believes they have been mislead makes a complaint. The authorities do have real powers to fine and stop operators.

Anonymous said...

They are back on TV. Have been for the last 2 days that I've seen. Eden Tv channel on Sky. Can't believe Sky would even allow them to take 80 seconds of fraudulent TV time.

Anonymous said...

Are these competitions legal? Surely they must be

TheChiefExecutive said...

Anon - 12 June. The competitions run by Churchcastle do have to meet some legal requirements. They must comply with the law (Gambling Act 2005), if they are advertised (any kind of paid for advertising space, by email or post - as these always are) they must comply with the Advertsiing Standards Authority CAP code, and if they use premium rate telephony (which seems to be how they make their money) then they must comply with the Phone Paid Services Authority rules. So Churchcastle has to come up with contests which meet the letter of the law. But they have broken the ASA rules and the PSA rules previously. When they defended the ASA inquiry (2012) Churchcastle stated that the wordsearch contest was a 'game of skill' for the purposes of the Gaming Act.

If anyone believes they have been mislead, or a firend or relative has been, by any aspect of a Churchcastle competition or contest I would urge you to contact all of the above enforcers. Elderly people have been shown to be especially vulnerable to Churchcastle contests. Churchcastle use testimony from previous winners who are elderly and who say they will use the prize money to help the grandchildren and so on. Older people are more vulnerable because they enjoy word search contests, they find very small print hard to read (whee the call charges are explained) and they are perhaps less cynical of the 'scam' claims of some modern marketing techniques (if it seems to good to be true, it is).

Anonymous said...

I thought I had been but then remembered making the calls. Any problems just call their customer service on 01424 479 7531, that’s what I did. They were really helpful and reminded me how the competitions work and even offered me a refund, although I ended up choosing to stay in my prize draws

Rafia said...

Hello. Thanks for reply. My mother never plays these types of games, but I did. So worried how she managed to find my mother's name. She is a very private person, so was a bit of a shock when I called from my mobile number, yet somehow they obtained my mother's name. Irritating. They need to be clear also the rules of the games, the word search advertisement is very very misleading because you are fooled to think you will win that particular competition not knowing they will keep sending and sending IMO junk.

TheChiefExecutive said...

Rafia - Churchcastle and Wynnington pool all the entries to their various competitions and these can operate for 2 or 3 months before a winner is declared. So you do not know how many competitions all have the same prize. You do not even know if the prize is awarded to anyone. Once you enter one contest they will send you other contests in the mail. These may also be entered into the same prize pool. There is only one winner in these contests - Churchcastle / Wynnington.

With regards to your mother's details, it is possible they have access to other data bases including electoral roll and phone lists. As long as your moher is not receiving their mail you should not worry about this.

Anonymous said...

I have just found out that these con artists have been getting £120 plus per month off my wife for the last 3 months (while i have been working abroad and everything is paid by direct debit). This was started by her entering a TV word search competition. Reading the small print i was amazed at the continuing way they have of conning people, and IF someone does "win" they do not even use the winners photo but get a models photo instead this fact alone makes alarm bells ring in my head. This week she received 4 more letters with 4 more word search puzzles and 4 more phonecalls to make each costing £7.20 with a chance to be put thru to another line for another £7.20 a grand total of £57.60 this week. I have sealed the envelopes and returned to sender all with message on the back stating that legal proceedings will be started if we receive anymore of these.

Anonymous said...

forgot to say that i did not call the last 4 times that was working it out at their prices,

TheChiefExecutive said...

In respnse to Anon 17 July - I have written an update to this story
here http://thechiefexecutive.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/beware-churchcastle-also-called.html.

We used the customer contact centre for Wynnington and followed up with an email requesting a refund. We got no reply. I will register a complaint with the premium rate phone regulator the PSAuthority - I suggest you do the same.

http://psauthority.org.uk/for-consumers

The more complaints the better. Also if you are a BT cutsomer you can set up premium rate number barring on your number - phone 151 and ask how to do it. You need to subscribe and then enter the numbers you wish to bar.

I understand your anger at this, but remember this is a sophisticated trick that catches out unwary word search fans who are not expecting the call charges to be this high.

Anonymous said...

Really? It's sky