‘Scamscriptions’ and recurring payment traps on the rise, Which? warns


Which? is warning consumers to be on the lookout for ‘scamscriptions’ and recurring payment traps as they have become one of the most common types of reports to Which?’s scam sharer tool. 

In recent months, complaints about unwanted recurring payments have dominated scam reports shared with Which? through its scam sharer tool. 

Scammers seem to have been ramping up their efforts. When Which? surveyed more than 2,000 consumers in November 2023 about when they most recently saw unexpected recurring payments from companies they did not recognise in their bank statements, around a third said they found them in 2023 (36%) and 2022 (35%), while only one in 10 (11%) spotted them in 2021.

After sifting through hundreds of complaints from the public, the consumer association uncovered identical tactics and the same perpetrators emerging again and again.

  • Advert cloaking 

Which? found several examples of advert cloaking – which is when dishonest websites camouflage their content to evade detection – even though this is strictly banned by advertising platforms. 

One advert on the Trainline app featured an arrow inviting users to ‘Continue’, and matched the brand colour of the Trainline app – making it extremely tricky to spot and likely to dupe someone attempting to buy a train ticket. Trainline has since blocked this advertiser and several others that Which? reported.

The consumer watchdog has also received five complaints about a company called OriginalPlus, which takes payments via Singapore. The OriginalPlus advert Which? saw features a ‘Click on OPEN’ button which is intentionally designed so it looks like part of different websites. 

It makes no mention of a company name, or the service being sold, until consumers click through. Even more sneakily, details about its €29.99 monthly fee were hidden right at the bottom of the web page, visible only when the consumer scrolls down. 

  • Hijacking QR codes 

Which? has heard of scammers placing fake QR code stickers over genuine ones in car parks, shops, hotels and restaurants and sending fake surveys with QR codes in the post to trick people into paying for outrageously expensive subscriptions. 

The consumer watchdog received 10 scam reports about people inadvertently subscribing to a company called Media Craze via QR codes. In every case, people believed they were dealing with known brands (including Iceland, ITVX, Gumtree, Snappy Snaps and Tesco) and had no idea they were handing over their card details to Media Craze, which then charged them £29.99 a month for its entertainment package. 

Earlier this month, the Insolvency Service said a winding-up order was made against the company trading as Media Craze at the High Court on 5 December 2023 and investigations are ongoing.

  • Free trials 

‘Free’ product trials – often for nutrition and beauty products such as ‘keto diet pills’ and ‘CBD gummies’ – are a particularly persistent type of subscription trap that is prevalent on social media platforms. 

Typically, people are led to believe that they are authorising a one-off payment or covering postage costs – only to discover they will be charged tens or even hundreds of pounds every month. These fees may be buried in the terms and conditions, although the worst offenders simply lie about their pricing model. 

  • Premium SMS alerts 

Premium SMS alerts provide opportunistic companies with yet another way to make easy money – because they can charge you without asking for your card details. Known as Charge to Bill, this is often used to donate to charity or vote in TV shows using your mobile phone number, but reports to Which? suggest this payment system is being abused.

Two names kept cropping up in the scam reports Which? received: Alerts4U and Stripey Offers. Registered as separate companies (SB7 Mobile Ltd and Stripey Giraffe Ltd), they use near-identical branding, list the same PO box address and promote shopping discount alerts costing £1.50 per text message, up to a maximum of three alerts a week. 

The Which? scam sharer tool has received 11 reports about Alerts4U and nine about Stripey Offers, while Trustpilot users have left hundreds of one-star reviews. In most cases, people told Which? they had no idea how they had been signed up. A few said they had received unsolicited alerts from Stripey Offers after scanning QR codes in car parks and restaurants and one had received three messages from Alerts4U after attempting to download a supermarket app.

The Phone-paid Services Authority (PSA) currently has an open enforcement investigation into both companies for potential breaches of its code of practice.

  • Fake ads on search engines 

Which? found dozens of advertisers that were impersonating legitimate parking apps such as JustPark, PayByPhone and RingGo on search engines. These ads claim you can download parking apps but sneakily sign you up for a ‘health and lifestyle bundle’ costing £24.99 a month, the name and supposed service of which is not stated.

Tech firms seem to struggle with the sheer volume of scammers abusing their platforms. Which? saw the same advertisers impersonating RingGo and other parking apps even after Which? had reported them. 

The consumer watchdog also received 13 complaints about a Cyprus-based firm called Alltainment, which claims to offer a video streaming service. People attempting to download a parking app did not realise they were signing up for a package costing £39.99 a month. 

Says Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy: 

“Our research suggests ‘scamscriptions’ and payment traps are on the rise – and consumers should be careful of any ads, free trial offers or text messages that look suspicious. If you think you’ve fallen victim to fraud, call your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud or contact Police Scotland.”

Consumers can get advice about how to protect themselves by visiting www.gov.uk/stopthinkfraud

Chris Price
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