The RSPCA has complained to Google and the communications regulator Ofcom about a phoney helpline that the charity says is tricking people who want to report animal abuse into calling a premium number.
The animal charity has warned that Google searches for "RSPCA contact number" can bring up pages listing 0844 premium numbers for reporting an animal in need. It said it found eight different sites with incorrect numbers in the first 10 pages of a Google search.
Callers to the fake numbers are redirected to the RSPCA’s national control centre, via the premium number, and remain unaware they have been scammed until the phone bill arrives showing they have been charged up to 7p a minute for the call, plus the connection fee.
Although the websites containing the numbers appear below genuine RSPCA sites listing the real numbers, which start with 0300 and cost the same as calls to a standard landline, the charity says it has received a number of complaints from members of the public about the issue.
It has urged Google and Ofcom to take action against the sites and is working to raise public awareness of the issue.
An RSPCA spokeswoman said Ofcom had a number of powers, including contacting the telephone company that provided the phone number and asking them to shut it down or issuing financial penalties directly against the scammers.
Dave Allen, head of education and advice at the RSPCA, said: "The amount of sites out there advertising incorrect contact numbers for our charity is very worrying.
"Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get these sites shut down, but the RSPCA has been trying to solve this issue by reporting the problem to Google so that the sites are not ranked highly in searches. We have also lodged a complaint to the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom, and now we are trying to raise awareness of this scam with the general public.
"Not only can these numbers leave people with hefty phone bills, but it also means members of the public might be put off contacting us when an animal is in desperate need of care."
The RSPCA receives a call to its cruelty line every 27 seconds and had 64,379 calls in September alone, but says it is unable to record the volume of calls that come in through the scam number because once a call has been diverted it appears like a normal call.
Allen urged people to look out for websites with premium-line numbers and information that did not sound quite right, but warned that the sites could be convincing because they displayed feed from the official RSPCA Twitter and Facebook pages.
He said: "Unfortunately, we have received complaints when someone believed they had contacted our national control centre directly but had actually contacted us through an 0844 number and been left with a huge bill instead.
"We rely on the public to contact us when an animal is in need, and the last thing we want is for someone to be put off by an awful scam like this. Please ensure you have the correct number when searching by clicking on the RSPCA official website."
Google and Ofcom were unable to respond to requests for comment in time for Third Sector’s deadline.