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Thursday, 21 October 2010

Consumer telephone rip-offs - the cost of complaining!

From: David Hickson - Campaigner against Telephone Misuse

Further to the comments quoted below, I can advise that the edition of "Watchdog" to be broadcast this evening will include an item on "the cost of complaining".

This will apparently cover the expensive telephone numbers used by Asda and EasyJet for their Customer Service operations.

I have no idea of how the programme will deal with the issue, as my offer of briefing has been declined.

I have contacted both of the companies and have obtained statements which I believe will be used in the programme. In both cases they are seriously flawed, as I will point out below:

EasyJet claims that an "average" call to its customer service number - 0871 244 2366 - of between 6 and 7 minutes costs 62p.

This is untrue. The advertised rate of 10p per minute applies only to BT landlines, which are uniquely subject to regulation that prohibits BT from making any money itself from the call. With BT, durations are rounded up and a 12p call set-up fee applies. The BT cost is therefore 82p.

All other providers make their own charge in addition to the money that is passed on to EasyJet. A cost of £2.80 is typical for a mobile.

Asda claims that its customer service number - 0844 481 5000 - is charged at "local call rates".

This never was true, not even before 2004, when there were distinct local rates. From BT, calls to local or national geographic numbers (as well as 03 numbers) are covered as inclusive within the customer's Call Plan. The regulated, no profit, rate from BT for the 0844 number, never covered by a call plan, is 5p per minute, plus the 12p call set-up fee.

All other providers make their own charge in addition to the money that is passed on to Asda. A cost of £40p per minute is typical for a mobile.

Asda claims that it will shortly be changing to a "free phone number". This is nonsense - there is no such thing. 080 numbers are free to call from landlines and payphones, but not from mobiles. Many mobile users enjoy inclusive (free) or bundled (some free) calls to geographic and 03 numbers, however 080 calls fall outside these terms (apart from certain very particular exceptions).

As I say, I have no idea about whether these errors will be identified or perhaps compounded in the broadcast. I do however hope that any further coverage of this matter will be properly informed.

It is not only public sector bodies, e.g. HMRC, DWP and NHS Direct, that are involved in the misuse of revenue sharing 084 telephone numbers. There are many private sector bodies which also use expensive telephone numbers in situations where the imposition of an "access fee" is probably not warranted.

It is totally improper for citizens to be required to pay an additional charge when calling a NHS provider, enquiring about benefits from DWP or asking for details of a tax calculation error from HMRC. Some might also think that it is unsatisfactory for a private company to levy a fee on consumers who are making a complaint or enquiry about its products and services.

BBC Watchdog has announced that it will be drawing attention to the issue in two sectors, as an item in the programme to be broadcast this evening. This programme meets its duty to entertain by picking on particular companies. I am anxious to draw attention to the fact that this practice is widespread in these sectors and in many others.

Using the types of telephone numbers listed below causes most callers, notably those calling from mobiles, to incur a premium charge. In all of these cases a 03 number would be more appropriate. Calls to all 03 numbers are charged at the rate, if any, for "normal" (geographic) calls from all telephones.

(With the exception of 0800 and 0870 numbers) in all of the cases of Customer Service lines listed below the call recipient benefits as a result of the premium paid by the caller. This is exactly the same situation as with the numbers used by many public bodies and the very many NHS GPs who use 0844 numbers.





Aldi, Asda:


BMIBaby, Ryanair:


M&S, Morrisons, Tesco:



Aer Lingus, Easyjet, FlyBe, Ryanair:



Co-op / Somerfield, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose:






BA, Ryanair, BMIBaby:



In all of these cases, the special low rates which apply only to the less than 28% of non-business calls made from BT landlines, are atypical of the cost which callers generally incur. Because BT is uniquely prohibited by regulation from making money from its rates for landline calls to Non-Geographic Call Service numbers, it is absurd to quote a BT rate (commonly omitting the 12p call set-up fee) and then suggesting that "others may vary", when it is BT that is the one exception to the norm.

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