Need to know: Ofcom is the body that regulates communications in the UK. Its remit covers the TV, radio and video-on-demand sectors, fixed-line telecoms (otherwise known as landlines), mobiles and postal services, and the airwaves over which wireless devices operate.
Ofcom’s job is to make sure that the market for communications services remains competitive so that people get the best from those services, and that includes ensuring that the public are protected from sharp practices and scams.
Ofcom is the relevant regulator for competitions and prize draws with a phone-in component (along with Phone-Paid Services Authority), and its powers derive from a number of Acts of Parliament, particularly the Communications Act 2003, as well as other guidelines, such as the Broadcasting Code.
Famous cases: In 2008, Ofcom found that staff working on high-profile BBC TV shows such as Comic Relief and Children in Need had posed as competition contestants and made up the names of phone-in competition winners.
In the same year, Ofcom heavily criticised ITV’s systems for selecting competition participants and winners, and described the broadcaster’s compliance procedures as inadequate. Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway was one of the shows signed out for criticism. People were chosen to take part in a particular segment on the basis of where they lived, so thousands of viewers wasted money on premium-rate calls when they had no chance of being selected.
Penalties: Ofcom can issue financial penalties and it does. The BBC was fined £400,000 for faking the competition winners and ITV had to pay £5.7 million for its compliance failure, plus £7.8 million for viewer compensation and a hefty donation to charity.
Mind you, these fines were pocket money compared to the £42 million penalty Ofcom handed out to BT in 2017. This was in no way related to competitions and prizes draws, it was a result of BT’s failure to pay other telecoms companies correct compensation when it missed network infrastructure delivery deadlines, but even so…
And finally: Premium-rate phone lines are not quite as popular for prize promotions as they once were (see above!), but a complaint about a text-to-win competition could go to Ofcom. Fortunately, Prizeology is well-equipped to advise on the legal aspects of competitions and prize draws, knows an awful lot about compliance, and will make sure you stay on the right side of any competition authority.
Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist, an IPM Board Director, and a SCAMbassador for National Trading Standards Scams Team.