OFT plans crackdown on PC makers and ISPs

A new divison of the OFT will be examining one of the most problematic consumer markets; home PC suppliers and ISPs

The Office of Fair Trading is to begin investigating home PC suppliers and Internet service providers to explore whether the needs of customers are being properly served.

The OFT's new Markets and Policy Initiatives Unit announced the initiative on Wednesday, following indications that the practices and regulation of the home PC and Internet Service Provider (ISP) market are creating a huge amount of public concern.

"This new division will be taking a more proactive look at the market as a whole, to see how the markets are working for consumers -- no one is in the dock at the moment," said a spokeswoman at the OFT.

The consumer IT services market attracts 50,000 complaints a year from disgruntled customers, making it nearly as troublesome as home improvements and second-hand cars. The problem is growing rapidly: more than 40 percent of households now have personal computers, and more than 14 million homes in the UK are connected to the Internet.

The OFT investigation will go beyond enforcing competition and consumer protection laws, and will specifically address reported concerns over the availability of information to compare deals, contract terms and support services, such as helpline costs. "We are going into this with an open mind," said the OFT spokeswoman. All software and hardware products, and Internet service packages will come under scrutiny.

It is expected that five full enquiries will be conducted each year into the consumer IT services market. "If a study reveals the need for further investigation or action under any of our enforcement powers, we will act accordingly," said John Vickers, director general of Fair Trading.

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