Premium scratchcards 'unlawful' says European court

A person dialling a telephone
Image caption Some scratchcards require consumers to call a premium rate number to claim their prize

Scratchcards which require people to call premium rate phone lines to claim a prize are unlawful, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.

Calling the numbers on the cards can cost around £1.50 per minute but callers often find the prize is barely worth the cost of the call.

The ECJ has now ruled this is against European Union law.

Scratchcard company Purely Creative says this will have an "operational impact" on all prize promotions.

Premium-line scratchcards are often found in newspapers and magazine and require players to scratch off and find three winning symbols.

Winners are then asked to call a premium number and then claim their prize, which is sometimes revealed at the end of the phone call.

Now the ECJ says such practices are banned, even if the cost of claiming is minimal compared with the value of the prize or even if the company was not making any money from the phone calls and even if there is a way of getting the prize free of charge.

The ruling will apply through the European Union.

Prize 'impression'

Many of the cards are produced by a company called Purely Creative, who have been the subject of dozens of complaints, according to Melanie Abbott of BBC Radio 4's You and Yours.

These include the cost of the prize not being worth the cost of the call to claim it, and holiday prizes incurring extra costs.

However, a spokeswoman for Purely Creative denied it had received "dozens of complaints" and said it received "a lot of positive feedback" from its consumers.

It also said one particular case study brought to its attention, which complained about a holiday prize, dated from 2004 and was for a promotion that the company no longer ran.

In a statement following the ECJ's ruling, Purely Creative said: "The ECJ's interpretation will have an operational impact on all businesses, including charities, across the European Union that run promotions which offer prizes. Even National Lotteries are not exempt.

"As such we are surprised by the scope of the ruling and believe that other businesses and institutions will be equally surprised once they become aware of the implications of the ruling."

The case came before the ECJ after the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) won its High Court case against scratchcards in the UK.

Jason Freeman, from the Office of Fair Trading said the ECJ's ruling was a "firm judgement" which supported the OFT's position, and that the way companies operate prize draws "may have to change".

He added: "Firms will have to think quite carefully about what they're offering. The court's been very, very clear that if you're calling something a prize, then it's got to be a prize, it can't be something which effectively you're paying for, it can't be something that you're asked to pay money for.

"The court was very, very concerned to protect the impression that consumers get when something is described as a prize."

Unlawful practices

The ECJ's ruling on Thursday meant that such practices are now deemed unlawful throughout the European Union.

The court gave the example of someone who wins a cruise in the Mediterranean but then finds they have to pay insurance, a supplement for a proper bed rather than a bunk bed, port fees and their food and drink on the voyage, adding up to £399 per person.

The ECJ judges added: "EU law prohibits aggressive practices which give the consumer the impression that he has already won a prize, while he is obliged to pay money or incur a certain cost in order to be informed of the nature of that prize or to take certain action to acquire it.

"The court makes clear that such practices are prohibited even if the cost imposed on the consumer is minimal (such as that of a stamp) compared with the value of the prize or where it does not procure the trader any benefit."

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