Broadband customers searching for their provider’s phone number on Google have been duped by misleading adverts for a suspect broadband broker, Which? research reveals.
A Which? investigation found ads for two companies – Broadband Services and Phone Internet – regularly appeared at the top of Google’s results page when broadband customers searched for the Sky, BT and TalkTalk helplines.
When searching from a mobile phone, the ads featured highlighted phone numbers which, when tapped, connect to a broker touting packages for a relatively unknown Cypriot broadband firm, rather than their current provider.
The broadband firm, Supanet, has attracted complaints from customers. One Which? reader said they had been hit with extortionate cancellation fees and threatened with debt collectors when they tried to leave.
People might need to contact their provider for a variety of reasons, ranging from connection issues to problems paying their bills during the cost of living crisis. Which? is concerned that the presence of deceptive click-to-dial ads in Google search results could put vulnerable consumers at risk.
Which? used mystery shoppers to call both companies, posing as Sky, BT and TalkTalk broadband customers who had lost their internet connection and wanted to contact their provider to get it fixed.
The consumer champion quickly found that Broadband Services and Phone Internet were actually the same company – Comms Broker- after one mystery shopper called the two companies and spoke to the same person. Representatives on both phone numbers said they worked for Comms Broker.
Upon questioning, Comms Broker admitted to Which?’s callers that it was not the provider for Sky, BT and Talktalk, and tried to sell them a new internet package with a company called Supanet.
On every occasion Comms Broker offered the same package, with five representatives quoting Supanet’s longevity – more than 20 years – and that it had a Trust Pilot score of 4.7 out of 5. Which? asked Supanet and Comms Broker if they are linked in any way, but neither responded.
Two representatives said Supanet is UK-based, a claim Which? found to be false. In reality, Supanet is a Cyprus-based provider with a chequered history. In 2013, it was fined by Ofcom for slamming – a process where customers are switched from one company to another without their consent.
Which? has seen a litany of complaints against Supanet from former customers.
These complaints often follow the same pattern – customers say they were sold a package over the phone and often told untruthfully that Supanet is part of or partnered with BT. BT has confirmed to Which? that it has no relationship with Supanet.
Customers who were dissatisfied with Supanet often had difficulty cancelling. One reader showed us evidence of Supanet demanding an early cancellation charge of £460 and instructing a debt collection agency when they refused to pay. When the customer threatened court action, they never heard from Supanet or the collection agency again.
Google has now removed these adverts but Which? believes that Comms Broker and other firms engaging in similar practices could be breaching Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations by misleading people into believing they offer broadband support and selling callers broadband packages they do not need.
Which? is calling on Google to take more effective action to stop misleading ads appearing in the first place. Clickable phone numbers that the user’s phone auto-dials can mislead customers and telephone numbers should not be allowed to appear in the preview of the advertising content. In light of this investigation, Which? advises people to avoid Supanet when shopping for broadband offers and opt for deals with other companies.
More broadly, people should not dial any customer service numbers with ‘Ad’ in the top corner of the search result. They should also be wary of any search results that do not match the term they typed in and any which do not state the name of the company they are trying to reach.
Adam French, Which? Consumer Rights Expert, said:
“Broadband customers looking for their provider’s contact details online should be on high alert for misleading adverts for so-called broadband brokers. With cost of living prices pushing households to the brink, unscrupulous businesses will be preying like vultures on people seeking to speak to their provider. People should avoid any broadband offers with Supanet.
“Google needs to work proactively to prevent misleading click-to-dial ads from appearing in the first place. Clickable phone numbers that the user’s phone auto-dials can be misleading and telephone numbers should not be allowed to appear in the preview of the content.
“In the meantime, consumers should avoid dialling any customer service numbers with ‘Ad’ in the top corner of the search result. If in any doubt about whether a number is genuine, check the customer service number on the broadband provider’s website.”
Notes to editors
A Which? investigation in December 2021 asked three mystery shoppers to call both companies, posing as Sky, BT and TalkTalk broadband customers who had lost their internet connection and wanted to contact their provider to get it fixed. Mystery shoppers made 12 calls in total.
Link to a Which? video with recording of the phone calls: https://youtu.be/Z-SaG4-3Www
Rights of reply
Supanet declined to comment.
Comms Broker had not responded to Which?’s requests for comment at the time of publication.
A Google spokesperson said: “We don’t allow ads or destinations that deceive users by excluding relevant product information or providing misleading information about products, services or businesses. Where we find ads that breach our policies we take action to remove them.”
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