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CHAT LINE EXPOSED GIRLS TO PERVERTS; Service shut down after phone numbers given out to callers.

Byline: BOB HAYWOOD

SCHOOLGIRLS as young as 14 were exposed to sex perverts on a mobile phone chat line, the Sunday Mercury can reveal. The new-style service - run by a Midland company - was supposed to allow youngsters to contact each other via text messages.

But there was nothing to stop sleazy adults from accessing the chatrooms and targeting the girls.

And because of an astonishing blunder, the mobile phone numbers of the young callers were openly given out - meaning that perverts could ring them later.

Following complaints, the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS) ordered the immediate shutdown of the service operated by Advanced Text Services of Birmingham.

The company, which had been running for seven months, was also censured for the sky-high cost of the textmessaging. One subscriber ran up a bill of more than pounds 200.

Last night the man behind Advanced Text Services admitted having made mistakes but said there was no evidence that paedophiles had abused the loophole, which has now been plugged.

The service was set up last April after advertising for customers in two national newspapers and in Sugar, a magazine for girls and young women aged 14 to 19.

The service operated by what is known as reversebilling under which chatroom subscribers paid nothing for the text messages they send. Instead, they were charged 58.75p for each reply they received and read.

That was almost FIVE TIMES the cost of ordinary text-messaging.

During its investigation, ICSTIS discovered that while customers could 'unsubscribe', the service failed to inform them when they had run up call charges of more than pounds 10.

In its finding, ICSTIS said: 'Monitoring found that when sending a message within the chatroom, the sender's mobile number was displayed to all those in the room, without warning that this was the case.

'The service, which was considered to be a contact and dating service, also appeared to be partly promoted at under18s and failed to warn potential users of the risks of giving out personal information.'

While Advanced Text Services sounds very grand, the Sunday Mercury has discovered that it is actually run from a secondfloor council flat in Kingshurst, Birmingham.

The tenant is jobless Nigel Corbett who told us that he played no part in the running of the company.

Mr Corbett, 37, said he had allowed his friend Sam Ellis to use the address - although he would not say why.

Several hours later, Mr Ellis telephoned the Mercury from Cyprus, where he said he had been living for the past nine months.

Asked what he did there, he replied: 'Not a lot.'

Manchester-born Mr Ellis, 50, who said he had 'always worked in telecommunications', said he used Mr Corbett's home for correspondence because he needed a UK address.

'I now realise there was the potential for misuse of the service by undesirable people and I would have been very concerned if that had happened,' he said.

'However, there is no suggestion it did.

'Telephone numbers were not displayed in the chatroom in every case. The reason it happened at all was because of a software problem which has now been rectified.

'Most of the breaches of the ICSTIS code of practice were due to my belief that ICSTIS regulations did not apply to reverse-billing services.

'If anyone did run up a bill of pounds 200, they would have had to have specifically agreed to that.

'I have now complied with all of the requirements and the service is operating again.

'The charge remains at 58.75p per message received, which I agree is higher than normal text-messaging. But that is how I hope to make my money. I have not made much up until now.'

Last night Rob Dwight, of ICSTIS, confirmed that Advanced Text Services was now complying with all of its regulations and the service was no longer being promoted at children.

CAPTION(S):

BLUNDERED ... Advanced Text Services is being run from a council flat at this block in Kingshurst, Birmingham, whose tenant is Nigel Corbett (right). Pictures by SAM BAGNALL
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Mar 3, 2002
Words:681
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