Australia’s phone psychics have suffered a setback after Telstra shut down the country’s lucrative 190 numbers.
The telco said the move – in which services were disconnected one minute before midnight on September 30 – was part of a “simplification program” it announced last year and that businesses using the pay-per-minute phone lines had been notified well in advance.
“We gave more than a year’s notice to aggregators and required them to contact their customers (the content providers), in order to work with and assist them with alternative options,” Telstra told AAP.
Self-proclaimed psychics can continue to offer their services over the phone but are no longer able to rely on Telstra’s InfoCall 190 premium rate numbers that had previously allowed businesses to charge callers between 38.5 cents and $5.50 per minute.
The system worked by Telstra paying the InfoCall service provider once their content – a live or recorded voice call – was accessed by a caller.
Telstra then relayed the costs to the phone user via their next bill.
“We will not charge you for the provision of credit,” Telstra used to advise callers while at the same time aggregators spruiked the benefits of 190 numbers to companies as a no-fuss method to earn extra revenue with “no need to make separate contracts or verify consumer identity before purchase”.
But Telstra introduced a monthly spending limit of $550 per caller in 2005 amid increasing concerns that some people were racking up large bills.
Callers to premium numbers “often ran up unexpectedly high per minute and fixed rate charges,” Australian Communications Consumer Action Network director of policy Una Lawrence said.
“It’s the end of a particular era,” RMIT associate professor of network engineering Mark Gregory said, noting that “the 190 numbers were problematic because the number of complaints were high”.
“In terms of brand damage versus revenue, Telstra would have looked at the demand by service providers for the 190 number service and the areas in which the service providers operate and decided that it would be best if customers of those services transacted directly with the service providers.”
Nigel Martin from the ANU Research School of Management said the move made sense.
“Telstra probably sees this as a way to streamline services and clean up some of the somewhat off-beat and unusual uses for carriage services,” he said.
Studies of purported psychics suggest some have in the past resorted to using scripts to keep customers on the phone for as long as possible, according to Australian Skeptics executive officer Tim Mendham.
“We learnt that some people were spending as much as tens of thousands of dollars on phone psychics – these were extreme cases, but indicative of the potential damage,” Mr Mendham said.
Although the phone numbers with a 190 prefix were largely seen as a relic of pre-internet times, many fortune-tellers and others professing clairvoyant abilities appeared to make use of the numbers up until just before the lines were closed.
All psychics that advertised in the weekly publications New Idea and Woman’s Day during August listed at least a 190 number, with call rates ranging from $2.20 a minute to $3.96 a minute.
A representative from UK-based premium rate services provider InverOak said Telstra’s decision to shut down the numbers had had a dramatic effect.
“Our international clients based in the UK and USA who also provided services to the Australian market have simply stopped all investment within Australia,” said Roger Bigwood, chairman of InverOak’s parent company Supported Business.
“Millions of dollars that were invested by overseas businesses no longer flow into Australia. Advertising revenues previously spent by these businesses with Australian publishers, newspapers and online marketers dried up overnight.”
Another casualty of the demise of InfoCall numbers were the competition entry lines of free-to-air broadcasters’ breakfast TV shows.
The Nine Network’s Today Mega Cash Monday and the Seven Network’s Sunrise Cash Cow have abandoned the 1902 lines that attracted a fixed cost of 55 cents from landlines and more from mobiles.
Viewers now have to send in an SMS with their details or fill out an online form using their smartphone to enter the competitions.