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We want to ban all costly customer helplines

Costly calls campaign image

We’ve heard you loud and clear – companies shouldn’t use expensive phone numbers for their customer service and complaints lines. That’s why we’ve launched a new campaign demanding a ban on costly calls.

We were pleased to see that the Consumer Rights Directive would put an end to pricey 0844 and 0871 customer helplines.

However, we weren’t happy that some sectors were being let off the hook. This includes financial services, travel companies and public bodies.

Getting irate about high-rate helplines

If you want to complain to your bank by phone, chances are you’ll have to call an 0845 number. HSBC, Natwest, RBS, Santander, First Direct and Halifax are all prone to this practice. You might need to call the Student Loans Company, the Environment Agency Flood Line or the Redundancy payments service helpline. Yes, you guessed it, more 0845 numbers.

Many of you spotted the missing companies here on Which? Conversation, including Kate:

‘No company should be immune from this, banks and government departments should be included too.’

In our poll, more than 5,000 of you agreed that all companies should scrap high-cost helplines. So we’re calling on the government to extend the ban to the travel industry, for the public sector to lead by example, and for the financial regulator to bring the finance industry into line. You can add your signature to our Costly Calls campaign here.

Paying a premium just to complain

Our research found that three-quarters of us are put off phoning customer services if we have to use a high-rate number, and three in five are put off making a complaint.

It’s outrageous that you’re faced with a high phone bill just to ask a question or make a complaint. It’s no wonder that two-thirds of people think companies do this deliberately to deter them from complaining.

You shouldn’t have to pay a premium to make a complaint or ask for help. We want an end to all costly calls for customer service and complaints, and new rules so that all companies have to provide a basic rate number. There should be no exceptions.

Barrington says:
10 October 2013

One useful website: http://www.saynoto0870.com

I have Virgin Media Telephone Line.

If the Virgin Media’s Telephone Directory (Tel No: 118180) has their telephone number in their telephone drectory and if they transfer you to the telephone number than the telephone number is usually free from a Virgin Media’s telephone line staff consistently tell me.

But before you ask the stafff to transfer you verify that the number will be free.
I shall also have to check my bill to verify what I am told is the truth.

If what I am told is correct will also save money besides the above tip at the top of the page.

I have telephone call unlimited and wouldn’t use it for; 01/02/03/0800/0808/0870 telephone numbers because they are free.

One way to boost this campaign would be for Which to actively mark down products and companies in its product reviews where they insist on these numbers . Why, for example, does Which not say when recommending an insurance provider such as John Lewis Insurance, “Good cover but requires customers to use 0845 number to contact them”?

Perhaps Which? should contact the Customer Services Manager of each well known offending company and ask them to comment on why they use non geographical numbers. Which? could then publish their replies and consumers make up their own minds on whether they wish to continue to use the business. 5p per minute does not seem a lot but if you are on the phone for 30 or more minutes it all adds up to money we should not have to spend.

You could start with John Lewis.

An earlier poster suggested that an employee at John Lewis should be sacked for introducing 0844 numbers to contact local branches. While making a purchase in JL recently I noticed an 0844 number on the sales receipt and commented to the sales person (partner) that this was a retrograde step. He said that he agreed but it was the manageing director’s idea! Not much chance of a change there then. Not even the people who own the company seem to be able to have a say in the matter.

I think we should name and shame the companies using non geographical or freephone numbers for customer services. It is not good enough to say that most telephone tariffs include the non geographical numbers, as most do not include all the regularly used numbers. Mine includes 0845 and 0870, none of the others. Also, elderly people and those on very low income are less likely to have an inclusive calls telephone plan and they are the amongst the ones who can least afford to pay. Those without access to computers are unable to check for alternative numbers on sites like ‘say no to 0870’.

Which? you are an independent consumer organisation and do not rely on any of these companies for revenue. So show us how impartial you are by naming the very well known companies who still use these number and ask them why we consumers have to pay extra for customer service. In the past week I have had to phone the following companies on 0844 or 0845 numbers.

John Lewis
Marks and Spencer

I’m sure other members will be able to add to the list.

Hi Figgerty, keep a look out for a story on the weekend…

I’m all agog and hope the wait is worth it.

I read today that the impetus for the Consumer Rights Directive started in Europe in 2008 because of the spread of ‘premium rate’ numbers in EU countries. 2008, boy we do work fast and after all this time ’09’ numbers will be able to charge up to £3 per minute from 2015. I bet Ryanair can’t wait. It seems the UK Government will be exempting Transport & Financial Services from the Directive. Will other EU countries do the same?

So why is Which still not taking account of suppliers’ use of premium rate numbers in its reviews? The survey of online retailers (Nov 2013) has John Lewis at the top in some categories and at no. 3 overall. Why not warn readers that if you have a question or complaint it will cost a fortune with some companies?

As promised here’s our latest Convo on financial firms and public bodies using expensive phone lines – we’ve named and shamed some in the Dec issue of Which? magazine.

Plus, Barclays, Barclaycard, RBS and Natwest have announced that they will soon offer freephone and 03 numbers for all their customer phone lines.


GRUMPY says:
27 March 2014

Telephoned the AA regarding my car insurance renewal, 08442097776, placed on “hold” listening to music and statements as to how good their service is, eventually gave up as no answer; checked my telephone bill the other day and found a charge of 55p for not even speaking to any-one.
It is not a large amount but had I been successful the bill would have no doubt been somewhat larger. Further more I am unable to find any statement on my documents as to charges relating to calls made to the number
Resolved the problem by telephoning their 0800 number and cancelled the Policy.
However I notice my new insurer has 0844 numbers for service lines as have many other insurers, this is nothing short of “sharp practice”.
Despite all the promises from the Government together with all the reviews of the Banking and Insurance Industry little has actually been implemented to curb these activities, some may suggest that such action may affect potential donations to the Political Parties, surely not !

Will this campaign also cover the numerous shyster sites that are operating to give people customer service numbers for various organisations. You can easily spot them ( unless you work for ITV ) as they only ever quote their own 0843 number

So in the case of Energy companies many of which now have 0800 numbers for their customer service numbers. These shyster sites will list the energy companies as having an 0843 number.

Emmanuel says:
19 April 2014

I totally support the call for the ban on costly customer service line numbers. It is an unnecessary additional cost and the sooner it is banned the better it would be numerous customers.

As with Grumpy and the AA insurance above I have just been messed about over the course of three calls by Octagon Insurance who use expensive numbers , , , , Beware these shysters, they have impossibly detailed requirements for proof of NCD which they don’t tell you about until after you have switched. Then they find fault with your old brokers renewal letter and your old companies certificate of NC years earned . . . . They send harrying letters, you spend ages on their expensive number talking to chippy ‘agents’ trying to find out what they actually want and what is the regulatory underpinning for their ridiculous demands.

Time these people were made to pay for the call themselves! Whilst they make money they have every incentive to keep you holding and talking.

Here’s some that just won’t change.

Very – 0845 For all calls inc cancelling orders.
P&O ferries- 0871- All calls including changes to existing bookings
Argos card-0845- All calls including account queries.

So, how about a means of reporting these companies and the many others who are just ignoring the new regulations? I wrote to Very and they insist they are entitled to continue with the 0845 and don’t need to provide an alternate.

I would like to mention one company that has changed 0845 to 0345. Congratulations to Yorkshire Water. I thought it would be nice to mention a positive change instead of only negative comments.

Thanks Deckhanddave, we’ve published a new debate that mentions Yorkshire Water 🙂 https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/costly-calls-premium-rate-customer-service-numbers-student-loans/

There are others that are trying too but sometimes it just gets missed. An example today was City Of York Council. In a letter they sent they quoted an 0845 number for a government dept. I tried replacing the ‘8’ with a ‘3’ and it worked fine. If you get an 0845 number for a government or major company try swapping like I did. It won’t harm and may work out. Yorkshire Water initially sent out letters with 0845 but their new letters have been changed to 0345 I’m sure some will be missed and it’s a prime case for trying the 8-3 swap.

On the problem of companies ignoring the new legislation or interpreting it to suite themselves, who do we complain to? OfCom go to great lengths to pass us off to CAB yet CAB have nothing really to do with this. It sometimes seems a bit ‘Smoke & Mirrors’. There should be a means of customers reporting errant companies but Via CAB? It doesn’t really work.

And not forgetting those rascals at the CAB are still quoting an 0844 numbers which they explain why here http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/getadvice/why_we_use_084_numbers.htm

The government decided in it’s wisdom(?) to direct many complaints through CAB now. Trading Standards being just one. CAB continue to charge and make money on telephone calls whilst restricting email complaints. It stinks of the removal of Legal Aid in many cases and the charge for Unfair Dismissal cases. The government is hell bent on removing the right of representation for all but those who can afford it. I have little time for CAB. I have used them (tried) on several occasions. Emails don’t get answered, questions on their inefficiency and lack of response is met with C**p spouted from those who are in charge. A cynical person might believe those people are the ones that get paid for working with them. I even offered to volunteer but the head of our local CAB didn’t deign to respond. Another way to erode the average persons rights. These forums are proving a far better source of help, assistance and advice than CAB.

And it’s completely wrong and unfair that a consumer has to pay 0844/0845 charges to make a trading standards complaint. It is a significant disincentive for consumers who wish to have cases investigated where there is a public interest.

The police non-emergency number (101) costs 15p per call.

I guess that making a charge is intended to discourage people from calling about trivial matters.

The justification I read was that unlike 999, 101 is a service and therefore should be paid for.

So now we pay to do the Police’s work for them? Report a suspicious person, not a 999 call please ring 101 or whatever it is. I refuse on principle. I see something I ring 999, if they say ring 101, I politely decline and leave it to their conscience whether they forward it or not.

This is what the police website says:

“When should I use 101?

You should call 101 to report crime and other concerns that do not require an emergency response. For example, if:

Your car has been stolen
Your property has been damaged
You suspect drug use or dealing in your neighbourhood
Or to:
Report a minor traffic collision
Give the police information about crime in your area
Speak to the police about a general enquiry

You should always call 999 when it is an emergency, such as when a crime is in progress, someone suspected of a crime is nearby, when there is danger to life or when violence is being used or threatened.”

Why the hell should I pay 15p to report crime in my area? As far as I’m concerned I pay taxes to support the police. If they want community involvement they should make it free to report crime.

Truly, this practice of stealth charges through phone lines has to stop.

I did not say that I condone paying for these calls but to call 999 regarding something that is not an emergency would be foolhardy and could deny prompt attention to a genuine emergency. Principles are one thing but commonsense must take priority.

Have two national numbers, one for emergencies and one for the local police, fine. But charging is simply wrong.

Search for ‘Alternative non-emergency numbers’ and you will find a list that contains mainly geographical numbers.

101 has had a chequered history, including a decision that the Home Office would not pay the telecoms companies to provide the service free to caller. In other cases it is considered fair for each caller to pay whatever they pay for a geographic call to contact a public service. In this case, it was decided that a flat rate (per call, not per minute) be set so that all callers could access the service on equal terms, regardless of what they normally paid for phone calls. It is understood that the rate of 15p per call does nothing more than this (the Home Office has agreed to under-right any possible shortfall in the recovery of costs).

101 provides access to the Police service covering the area where the call is made (in England and Wales). Every Police service is however required to publish a geographic rate (01/02/03) number for non-emergency access by those who may perhaps want to keep a record of their general local police non-emergency number. This is obviously in addition to the many other contact numbers that may be offered by local community support teams and the like.

The fair telecoms campaign finds it regrettable that the Home Office felt unable to fund a free non-emergency Police telephone contact number, but applauds the principle of equity applied in the charging method selected.

111, which is used for non-emergency (but URGENT) access to NHS services in Scotland and England, is free to caller.

David, does your campaign have any views on CAB’s continued use of 0844 numbers? I can’t see any logical distinction between CAB and any other public service given that CAB is now the gateway to trading standards which is a statutory service.

We have to distinguish between the local Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABs) and the national organisation “Citizens Advice” that coordinates their efforts, and separately runs the Consumer Service formerly known as Consumer Direct – the gateway to Trading Standards – under contract to the government.

The 0845 Consumer Direct number should have been switched when it was taken over by Citizens Advice in 2012 but, contrary to our entreaties at the time, it was retained. With the introduction of the Consumer Contract Regulations on 13 June 2014, prohibiting businesses from using 084 numbers, we faced the prospect of someone calling a 0845 number to complain about a business using a 0845 number for complaints. Happily the pressure we applied to the Department for Business led to it releasing extra funding so that the number could be switched to the 0345 equivalent without any loss of income to Citizens Advice. This switch was achieved just in time.

Some Citizens Advice Bureaux use 0844 numbers for direct contact and also there are some nationally coordinated services with 0844 numbers that they participate in. As part of the arrangement with BIS it has been confirmed that EVERY ONE of these 084 numbers will be switched by the end of September. At my last contact I was assured that all was going to plan and this deadline would be hit.

Having first crossed swords with Citizens Advice over this matter back in 2008 we are delighted to have finally secured a victory, and grateful to BIS for its help with this.

There are quite a few Police Officers who agree that it is wrong to charge people for reporting crime. For a long time I had the direct line to our local forces control room but then they changed it. I could be wrong but I think officers are discouraged from giving it out now.

Why can we not bring pressure to bear so that 101 calls are included in inclusive minutes?

I am not sure that the idea of bundling calls to 101 (on the present charging basis) would make sense. Let us assume that the sums are done on the basis of 1 call per quarter per 15 customers – in which case the package subscription would increase by 1p per quarter for everyone. Some might say that this would be unfair to those who never called 101, just as BT’s inclusion of 0845 calls is wholly unfair to those who should not be subsiding users of 0845 numbers that they never call.

I believe that the Police would oppose Ofcom permitting such a move, because the fact that there is a modest cost for all callers may act as a disincentive to making nuisance calls to the service.

It must also be noted that every police service must publish a geographic rate number (to access the same call centre) for use by those who wish to avoid the 15p charge – generally those who have calls to geographic rate numbers inclusive in their package.

For these reasons, the fair telecoms campaign would not support a proposal to simply allow calls to 101 to be included in call plans and bundles.

Someone needs to tell Cumbria Constabulary: 0845 3300247

Victim Supportline 0845 30 30 900

I can live with that. Thanks, it’s in my mobile now. So what purpose the 101? I object to extra call costs on my mobile because every month I don’t use all my allowance but know what my bill will be. If there is any change in it then I know to trawl through all my calls to find why there is an extra charge. As an example the last but one bill had extra charges, one which said I was in Bermuda! I wish. I just see all these extra excluded numbers from inclusive tariffs as another way to screw people out of more money. York Lendal Bridge debacle was one such attempt. DVLA tried & failed at me. I got so sick of it I started to fight back.

The point of 101 – as it now is (originally it was different) – is for us to have a single memorable number to call to report a crime that is not currently in progress wherever we may be (in England or Wales for the moment). The call will be automatically routed to the call centre operated by the local Police service.

Given a local number for one’s local police service, it is to be hoped that not very many 15p 101 calls will appear on anyone’s mobile bill. One may perhaps be comforted by the fact that someone else with very little remaining credit on a PAYG phone would have been able to make the same call at the same cost, rather than paying a high pence per minute rate.

The principle is good but a single memorable number that could be charged within the call time
bundles would be better. More to the point is,if someone is out of credit then they can’t report a possible crime unless they telephone 999. Doesn’t quite ring right to be honest. Still, looking on the bright side, it must do wonders for the Police’s statistics. Crime down 40%! Oh hang on, maybe people just aren’t reporting it because of the 101 charge. I know there’s no easy answer to this but surely it is in everyone’s interest (bar criminals) to get possible crimes reported? As such a nationwide 0845 number would have been better and just changed to 03.

Hello again all.

I am curious but has this change to the regulations regarding 084 etc etc numbers made much difference? I ask because I am still seeing the same companies using the same 08 numbers and no effort to change them. I reported one to CAB but that’s it, nothing changed and no further comment from CAB. It all seems rather ineffectual to me. I have a problem with Very and they continually answer my emails with content that doesn’t relate to the questions I ask. They do however continue to urge me to call 0844.

From my own view point, not as much as it should have done. The only thing it has done for me, is demonstrated how weak are law writers are. They had a perfect chance to start slapping large fines on companies how hadn’t changed numbers by 13th June but for whatever reason they failed and we’re left with companies seemingly doing what they want.

I’d like to know what will be done for companies that still haven’t changed their numbers.

And don’t forget, sales lines aren’t covered. And neither are any financial institution, although the FCA might one day do something similar for them.

Surely the issue is that there is effectively no reporting and enforcement regime. If the government was serious about this issue they would have:

(1) created a national reporting facility whereby consumers can register non-compliant companies by email or phone (like the TPS). In my view Ofcom should have a role here, rather than CAB
(2) announced an intention to prosecute and fine non-compliant companies
(3) taken a few household names though the enforcement process – with associated adverse publicity.

They might also have made the telcos and 0845 providers jointly liable for premium rate lines that are now unlawful, encouraging ‘self regulation’.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to see how 0845 numbers are marketed at businesses. For example, Galaxy Numbers (http://www.galaxynumbers.co.uk/business-phone-numbers/0845-numbers/) claim that “0845 numbers … promote a National presence and are not limited to a specific location. A memorable 0845 number can enhance the image of your business and could encourage more nationwide callers to get in touch.” I wonder how many Which readers find that 0845 numbers enhance the image of businesses that use them.

The 0845 Number Company (http://www.the0845numbercompany.co.uk/default.aspx) says that “they are ideal for companies that want to provide their services to the entire country rather than just one specific geographic location, as it stops people associating them with just that area”.

The 0845 Number Company also talks about the advantages of 0844 numbers, advertising that “You will also receive a rebate of 1 pence per minute when the number is pointed at a landline. This also allows you to make a small income from your received calls.” Never mind the ethics of making a ‘small income’ off the back of callers.