UK consumers are being tricked into calling premium rate numbers when trying to make an insurance claim, according to consumer group Which?.
Which? said in a report on Wednesday that "click to dial" ads are appearing above insurers' websites on Google (GOOG).
The group analysed results for common search terms used when looking for car insurers' phone numbers on Google, the default search engine on Android phones and Apple iPhones.
Which? found claims management companies (CMCs) and premium-rate call connecting services competing to appear above insurers' own websites.
One in five searches (21%) displayed adverts for "call connecting" services at the top of the results.
These adverts appear above the insurer's number and when consumers click on them they are taken to a website displaying a large phone number and button that says "click to call." Consumers are then put through to their insurer, but via a premium-rate phone number.
The cost of making these calls can quickly escalate — with a 30-minute phone call costing £112.50 ($157.11) on Sky, £124.50 on Three and £127.50 on Vodafone.
Call connecting service ads are in breach of Google’s rules. Google said it takes action to remove these ads and removed over 99 million last year.
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The Which? investigation found "click to dial" ads for claims management companies (CMCs) were rife and appeared in two in five searches (43%) for customer service phone numbers.
"Click to dial" ads have a clickable number in the search result itself. Some of these ads can trick customers to believe they’re contacting their insurer, when they’re actually being put through to a third-party to handle their claim, who will take a cut from any insurance payout.
These charges often aren’t stated upfront and can catch consumers unaware.
Insurers have been warning customers about the dangers of ‘click to dial’ adverts for CMCs for years, but they still commonly appear at the top of search results. Admiral told Which? it has seen cases where customers only found out they’d been dealing with a CMC when they called Admiral directly for an update on their claim.
“Google needs to work proactively to prevent call connecting ads which violate its rules and misleading click-to-dial ads from appearing in the first place," said Adam French, a Which? consumer rights expert.
"It must also take greater action to ensure these ads are not misleading consumers by branding themselves as ‘official’ customer service numbers.
“In the meantime, unfortunately it is on us to keep an eye out for click to dial ads and call connecting companies online.”
Google said it doesn’t allow ads that deceive users by providing misleading information about products, services or businesses and removes ads which violate its policies.
Which? said consumers should avoid dialling any customer service numbers with ‘Ad’ in the top corner of the search result. They should also be wary of any search results that don’t match the term they typed in and any which don’t state the name of the company they’re trying to reach.
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