Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Beware Churchcastle also called Wynnington Wynners - Word Search phone bill shock

Beware phone bill shock - Churchcastle now running Word Search contests under the name 'Wynnington Wynners'

I've previously written about Churchcastle - they run word search competitions often with a £10,000 prize. These contests appeal to elderly players who like hunting for words but don't have eyesight good enough to read the small print.

When they've found the hidden word entrants must phone a premium rate phone line to enter. Finding the hidden word is easy, spotting the hidden phone charges is less obvious. 

Each phone call costs just over £10. Yes, £10. The phone number is 0906 6350368. These are among the most expensive call types allowed by the phone regulator. The cost per minute is £3.60 + your network operator's service charge. Calls last around 3 minutes.

My elderly relative was caught with the Churchcastle bug. She was among thousands of people convinced they had won a big prize, lured into making further expensive phone calls to claim it. She hadn't won anything. The Regulator for premium rate phone services (then called Phone Pay Plus, now called the PSA Authority) ruled they had broken the rules as the contests were misleading. Churchcastle was fined £800,000.

But now Churchcastle are back in business running word search contests under the brand 'Wynnington Wynners'. These puzzles appear to run in newspapers, online and on TV. Not much has changed. After spotting the hidden word in a grid contestants must make a 3 minute phone call costing over £10 to submit their answer.

THIS CONTEST COSTS £10 to enter online

The fun doesn't stop there though. After entering the contest and leaving their name and address entrants are sent more puzzles in the post. These are often entered in the same prize fund pool. So that means unwittingly players are making another entry for the same £10,000 prize - not a different prize. All the Wynnington organised contests typically run for 2 - 3 months. All the entries go into one pot and there is 1 winner. 

Unfortunately my partner's 96 year old mum has entered. We spotted it on her phone bill. She phoned twice, one call followed immediately by another in late April. The first call lasted 2 minutes 51 seconds and cost £10.32. The second entry took 3 minutes and 1 second and cost £10.92 - those extra 10 seconds cost 60p more to enter the same contest.

The Regulator has strict rules about the use of premium rate phone calls. The cost must be clear, vulnerable people (e.g. children, elderly, ill) must not be targeted. The Authority has the power to levy large fines and stop services if companies break those rules. 

You can check numbers on their website here. The PSA Authority lists contact numbers for customer service in the search results. The rules state these must be standard cost numbers.

I phoned Wynnington to ask them to consider refunding the cost of at least the second call - as it was clearly made because my partner's 96 year old mum didn't think her call had entered correctly. She had no idea it cost £10 for each entry. When I asked her about whether she'd entered she said 'oh yes, I found the word'. When I asked if she knew it cost £10 to enter she gasped, 'oh no, really?'.

Wynnington answered the phone quickly. The operator was helpful and immediately offered to remove her name and address from further mailings - but this could take a  few days, so she may receive further contests in the post. He said he would refer the refund request if I emailed or posted evidence of the call cost (the phone bill). My partner sent this by email. We haven't heard anything yet, but its was only a few days ago.

When I complained about Churchcastle to the Sun (who ran their puzzles) in 2012 the reader services dept instructed them to refund the £120 my partner's mum spent entering their contests. That was the contest Phone Pay Plus later levied the £800,000 fine for - and instructed Churchcastle to pay back anyone who asked. When I complained to Phone Pay Plus they declined to investigate - my complaint was too early, after mine the flood gates opened and they acted.

It may be that the PSA Authority is already monitoring Wynnington. Google searches for my original articles about Churchcastle here and here are receiving more requests than ever. 

If you, or a friend or relative has been caught out, unaware it costs £10 to enter, or that it is unclear entries for the £10,000 prize are pooled together with entries for other contests then you can complain to the PSA Authority. You should also complain to Wynnington on their customer care line 0179 730 9000 (standard call costs apply) or write to them at Flat 23, Shackleton Court, 2 Maritime Quay, London E14 3QF.

According to Companies House Wynnington Limited is a subsiduary of Churchcastle Limited and was registered in October 2012 (the same month Churchcastle was fined). The listed Director of Wynnington is Werner Straub, born 1941 with a contact address in Switzerland. Werner Straub and Thomas Alfred Backer are listed as the 2 current Directors of Churchcastle. Proof that Wynnington and Churchcastle Word Search contests are run by the same company.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Beware Easylife Group Limited, 'free trial' Easylife Rewards Club and Rocket Marketing Group - Why have they charged me?

Beware Easylife Group Limited, 'free trial' Easylife Rewards Club membership and Rocket Marketing Group

Also beware 241 Hotel Card membership, Gourmet Society membership, Discover Britain Card membership

Buyers who purchased a household product by telephone from the Easylife Group Ltd (11-13 Kings Terrace London) catalogue are offered a 21 day free trial membership to a club that claims to save you money on high street shopping.

The Easylife Rewards Club is operated by the Rocket Marketing Group based in Brighton.

You're asked to pay £2.99 to cover postage for the free vouchers and membership pack. This payment is taken when you make your purchase of goods from the catalogue. The discounts provided by Easy Rewards Club appear to be many of the same offers you can easily find all over the internet for free. 

What may be less clear is that unless you cancel the 'free trial' before the 21 day trial ends your full annual membership will be charged at £69.98 - to the same card you used to buy something from the catalogue.

At that point Easylife Rewards Club (operated by the Rocket Marketing Group in Brighton) will have been passed all your personal data, your name, telephone number, address and payment details. 

Cancelling the 'free trial' can prove difficult. Especially for vulnerable elderly customers who may have purchased a health aid - like joint patches - after seeing the Easylife advert in a newspaper. Then they start receiving a regular catalogue. They may not realise they have taken a 'free trial' and may mistake the voucher pack as 'junk mail' and bin it.

That would be an expensive mistake, because unless they cancel the 'free trial' by phoning Easylife, or visiting the website (difficult for many people in their 80s and 90s) the full annual membership will be charged at £69.98. Once the charge is made getting a refund is very difficult. 

Here's what happened to my partner's mum when she got involved with Easylife. 

She is 96 years old. She's had an astonishing innings, born in 1921, she served in WWII, and still lives alone in her own home. She manages to stay abreast of world events and politics from the TV, but sadly can't always remember what she ate for lunch.  She lives 400 miles away from us, but we speak to her every day. My partner visits her every couple of weeks. She's like many vulnerable older people across Britain. 

She purchased a product from the Easylife Group Limited in June 2016. She unwittingly agreed to a 'free trial' of the Easylife Rewards Club (operated by the Rocket Marketing Group). In July 2016 I presume a debit of £69.98 appeared on her bank statement. Her vision is poor and then 95 years old she didn't notice. The same fee £69.98 will be debited in June every year until she cancels.

My partner's mum is housebound. She is unable to save money on high street shopping because she cannot go to the high street. For the same reason she cannot use vouchers to gain discounts in restaurants, visitor attractions or hotels.

In September 2016 (and I'm having to make some assumptions here, because my relative has some memory problems and cannot remember any of this) Rocket Marketing Group used her contact details to sell her a Gourmet Society Membership for £19.94.

The T&C state that your Gourmet Society Membership will be debited at the same rate as your original joining fee every year until you cancel (or if you're lucky your payment card expires and they can't process the payment). That's certainly an easylife for someone, they just keep collecting your money year after year.

Then in January 2017 they sold her a 241 Hotel Card membership also for £19.94 which was debited from her bank account. The statement entry is Easylife Rewards call 03448-809200 GB. Again the T&C state that membership is renewed every year until you cancel.

But Rocket Marketing Group weren't finished with my elderly relative yet, not by a long way. Presumably they had her marked down as a cash machine by now with a hotline to her diminishing bank account. She was certainly giving their well paid bosses an 'easylife'.

In April 2017 Easylife Group sold her a second 'free trial' to the easylife Rewards Club when she made another purchase from their catalogue. So now she has 2 memberships both running at the same time.

 When the 21 days ended in April 2017 Rocket Marketing debited £69.98 from her bank. Both the memberships to the Easylife Rewards Club, will keep auto-renewing in June and April every year, each costing £69.98 until she cancels. 

Remember she's 96 years old. Living alone, housebound, somewhat confused. Her doctor is concerned she's forgetting to take her medication and we're concerned whether she's remembering to eat. 

That same month, April 2017, Rocket Marketing Group sold her a Discover Britain Card membership for £19.98. I presume this was also by telephone. This card claims to offer discounts to various attractions throughout the UK. It shows the National Trust logo on the website - even though they do not appear to have any discounts at the National Trust (they say Kew Gardens is operated by the National Trust, it isn't)

In June 2017 my partner begun power of attorney proceedings to look after her mum's affairs. To do this she's gathered up her mum's bank statements. This is when the full horror of Rocket Marketing Group's hotline to her bank account becomes clear. A quick search online and its like pulling at a thread that usually ends at Rocket Marketing Group in Brighton. Look at the T&C on the 241 Hotel card, or the Discover Britain card and there they are lurking like a bad penny (or £19.98, or £69.98 - take your pick)

In February 2012 Rocket Marketing Group were reprimanded by the Direct Marketing Commission for 'inertia selling'. That's when you use one thing to sell another, and another. They promised to mend their ways. It doesn't look like they have.

My partner's mum is unaware she has joined any membership clubs when I ask her (of course becasue If you knew you were a member why would you join again?). So I start trying to unravel the mess, cancel all the direct debits and get her name removed from the mailing lists.

She is already signed up to the Telephone Preference Service. This free service is designed to stop companies cold calling and make it difficult for them to pass customer details to third parties. The rules are enforceable by the Information Commissioner . The ICO is thankfully very powerful and controls the way organisations use and safeguard our personal data. This is especially important to protect us from fraudsters. They can fine companies who break the law up to £500,000.

I email Andy Huggins the CEO of Rocket Marketing Group (Brighton). The Operations Manager Bill Emery responds the same day by phone. He agrees to refund all monies debited from 2016 and 2017 on the basis that my partner's mum was unable to give meaningful consent to any of the sales or use of her data. 

He apologises that they sold her 2 overlapping memberships for the Easylife Rewards Club. He cannot explain how this has happened, but agrees it is possible and could have happened to other customers. They will refund £202.69 and confirm in writing that they have cancelled all recurring direct debits for Easylife Rewards Club, the Discover Britain Card membership, the 241 Hotel Card membership and The Gourmet Society. They will remover her details from all mailing lists. 

I also email Greg Caplan CEO of Easylife Group. The Easylife Group in London has had 4 complaints about misleading ads upheld by the Adertising Standards Authorty 1 in 2013, 2 in 2014, 1 in 2015 and 15 complaints informally resolved. I don't hear anything immediately but in my complaint I referred specifically to the poor quality of a product my partner's mum purchased. Early the next morning they phoned to offer her some more. She said no, and hung up. Maybe this call was related to my complaint, maybe they were hoping she would want to buy a fresh supply - I've explained that she shouldn't talk to anyone calling themselves Easylife as they have taken a lot of money from her bank account. 

I had a very helpful online chat with the Information Commissioner (ICO). They have the authority to investigate companies that break Data Protection law. That includes passing on data, calling people who are registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) and gaining meaningful specific consent 'a positive expression of choice'.

The Information Commissioner may take a different view on whether a positive expression of choice has been made by the customer during these phone calls. They may also have concerns about the legality of passing personal data of customers registered with the Telephone Preference Service to third parties (Easylife Group to Rocket to the Gourmet Society for instance) They may also have concerns about the ongoing agreement to continue membership year after year.

It's difficult to imagine how Rocket Marketing Group can be confident meaningful consent has been gained for an ongoing annual membership of the Easylife Rewards Club when the 'free trial' was sold by another company. Meaningful consent certainly wasn't obtained in the case of my partner's mum. Yes Rocket refunded immediately - but only when we noticed what was going on. Also it should have robust data management policy to ensure customers are not enrolled and charged twice for the same club. They locate customers by postcode and name so this should be a no brainer.

The Direct Marketing Commission also has 5 key principles by which members should operate to treat customers honestly, fairly, openly and with transparency to protect the good image of the direct marketing industry. They can uphold complaints, and refer wrong-doers to the regulatory authorities but they cannot issue fines. Rocket Marketing Group is not a member. 

If you, or someone you care about has been caught out by Easylife Rewards Club or any of the membership clubs operated by Rocket Marketing Group (Brighton)

  • Phone Easylife Rewards Club customer service line 03448 809 200 and explain what has happened. Ask them what records they have for you, and all the items they have ever sold you. If you are unhappy with this ask for a refund, ask them to stop all direct debits and remove your details from their data base.
  • If you remain unhappy with the response ask for a senior manager to phone you back. They will agree to this.
  • If your complaint is about another club or loyalty scheme operated or sold by Rocket Marketing Group complain to CEO
Easylife Group Limited (London) operate the catalogue sales for goods. They have a satisfaction guarantee on their website. If you have a problem with the goods they have sold or wish them to remove your data from their lists:

  • Phone them on 0303 031 0777 and explain what has happened. 
  • If you want to ensure they do not pass your data to other companies ask them to remove your details from third party marketing consent.
  • If your are offered a 'free trial' to any membership club ensure you understand all the details of the agreement and how to cancel it. If you have any doubts - no matter how tempted you are - let the offer pass. 
After you've taken the above steps if you remain unhappy you can complain to:

Update March 2018

Since I wrote this article in June 2017 it has attracted a very large number of google search hits. Reviews on other online consumer sites also suggest that there are plenty of people who discover they, or an elderly relative, have become a member of an 'easylife' club - the latest is the Easylife Motor Club. It appears from some reviews to have sold memberships to people who have never even held a driving licence. 

In February 2018 Karen Ford, the Head of Compliance at Easylife left a comment below and I exchanged some emails with her about my relative's story outlined above. Karen apologised and said it should never have happened, and wouldn't happen today with the new compliance systems they have in place. She also confirms that Rocket Marketing Group do sell memberships on behalf of Easylife Group.

If you are having problems with Easylife Group or Rocket Marketing Group, Easylife  Rewards Club, 241 Hotel Club, Gourmet Society, Visit Britain or Easylife Motor Club membership and you need help you can email: 

Please also post a comment below if your complaint is not swiftly resolved to your satisfaction.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Advertising Standards Authority - Is it worth complaining?

The Advertising Standards Authority is funded by the advertising industry to reassure consumers that ads are 'legal, decent, honest and truthful'

It's easy to complain about an ad online if you think it doesn't match the above description. However based on my experiences don't expect anything to happen quickly, and don't expect the advertiser to be severely punished.

I considered complaining to the ASA about some wordsearch contest ads run in the Sun by Churchcastle in 2011. An elderly relative was duped into thinking she had won a prize and ran up a £120 phone bill she could ill-afford making calls that cost over £8 each. I didn't complain to the ASA because I knew she wouldn't get her money back and Churchcastle wouldn't get fined.

The Churchcastle Ad

Instead I contacted the then premium phone line regulator PhonePayPlus. However they told me they were aware of the ads but had decided not to investigate.

So as a last resort I rang the Sun reader services, and to my utter surprise they instructed Churchcastle to refund the £120 - which amazingly they did. So I felt the regulator had failed to protect my then 93 year old relative but the newspaper did look after their loyal reader.

Then in October 2012 a surprising thing happened. PhonePayPlus announced its biggest ever fine for abuse of premium rate telephony - £800,000 to Churchcastle for the very ad I had attempted to complain about. It seems they continued to receive complaints, many from people with relatives aged 80+ who had fallen victim, and looked again. Then they decided to act to protect vulnerable consumers. They also instructed Churchcastle to refund the money to anyone who had entered. 

(Disappointingly in June 2013 after a series of appeals the PSA Authority reduced the fine  to £425,000 + £100,000 in legal costs).

By the time the Advertising Standards Authority got around to issuing a judgement on the Churchcastle ads it was December 2012 - 22 months after the ad first appeared in February 2011. 

Unbelievably the ASA did not agree that the miniscule print  explaining the call cost at the bottom of a full page newspaper ad was in breach of their advertising code. They said readers could work it out. The ASA did however state that because entrants had to pay over £8 to claim their prize it did break one rule on prize promotions.

So as far as I was concerned the ASA looked a bit foolish. PhonePayPlus had issued its largest ever fine £800,000 but the ASA didn't think the ad boke its rules.

In January 2013 I complained to the ASA that Gatwick Airport had run a promotion that misleadingly promised by pre-booking parking early you were guaranteed the cheapest rate. The rate dropped after I booked it. The ASA ruled that the ad was misleading. They did put me in touch with the parking operator and the airport did eventually refund the entire cost.

I complained to the ASA again in May 2014 about a Morrison's supermarket promotion - buy 3 bottles of premium wines for £10. The stock ran out the first day, even though the ads ran all Bank Holiday. The ASA was minded to let Morrison's off because they put some inferior wines on offer instead - but they didn't display pictures of these wines in any of the ads - as I was able to prove with screenshots of Morrison's website - screenshots which Morrison's couldn't provide to the ASA. Eventually the ASA upheld my complaint - insufficient stock of a product on promotion.

In June 2014 I complained to the ASA about the way Stansted airport advertised its parking charges in online ads. The ASA agreed the pricing and discount claims did not comply with the Advertising Code, however they resolved the matter informally and no adjudication was published. I asked the ASA to get the airport to refund me the overcharge but they said this was beyond their remit.

The Daily Mail free Marmite promotion

In October 2016 I complained to the ASA about a Daily Mail and Iceland stores front page promotion for a free large jar of Marmite. All you had to do was take the voucher to Iceland. My local store had no stock, and many people on social media found the same. It took the ASA 8 months to investigate, and today they agreed the promotion broke their rules - some Iceland stores had as few as 10 jars, some had none at all. 

So what happens when the ASA investigates one of its members ads? Not much. The ad must be amended or it mustn't appear again. That's it. The Daily Mail complaint took 8 months, I had to write to the Chief Executive of the ASA to ask why it was taking so long, and as a result I complained about the ASA itself. They begrudgingly apologised to me and said the process had taken longer than it should have done.

The ASA Annual Report issued in April 2017 reveals that only 60% (against a target of 75%) of complainants are satisfied with the process. The ASA gets a new Chair (Lord David Currie) on 1st October this year. I hope he'll look closely at why complainants are so unhappy and work to improve both the speed and effectiveness of the complaints process.