Have you ever suffered from a mobile phone, landline or broadband bill shock? The symptoms? An exceptionally large bill from your provider that not only comes as a surprise, but that you couldn’t possibly afford.
It doesn’t take much to set me off on a rant about the many things I think phone and broadband companies should do to treat their customers better. And I consider myself fortunate to be in a position to influence the actions of industry, government and regulators into a pro-consumer direction.
So I’m chuffed to conkers by phone regulator Ofcom’s request for consumers to let it know if they’ve received an unexpectedly high broadband, landline or mobile bill in the last 12 months.
As Ofcom’s director of consumer affairs will testify, I’ve spent quite some time bending his ear about the lack of consumer protection against a phenomenon dubbed ‘bill shock’.
What’s bill shock?
I’m sure there are many of us who cringe at our monthly bills, due to slightly exceeding our usage limits. But that’s not what bill shock’s about. Bill shock’s usually a one-off affair, where you receive a bill so unexpectedly high that there’s no way you could have predicted it.
The causes of bill shock can be many and varied – perhaps you’ve exceeded a ‘fair usage’ policy you never knew existed, maybe your operator didn’t keep you informed about the extortionate cost of using your mobile overseas, or maybe your child’s unwittingly been making in-app purchases on your smartphone.
I’ve heard from people who’ve been hit by big bills for all these reasons, but the one thing they have in common is the understandable question – why didn’t my operator tell me sooner?
It’s a fair query. After all, banks and credit card providers are usually quick to alert us to unusual, out of character usage on our accounts, so why can’t phone and broadband providers do the same? This question becomes even more relevant when you consider a more sinister cause of some bill-shocks – fraud if your phone is stolen.
Why not cut the service?
When I’ve asked operators about mobile bill shock in the past, responses include the technological difficulties of monitoring customer usage closely (this from giants of technology), or arguments that consumers won’t want their phones cut off.
Yet, I don’t understand why it’s not possible to cut off usage that results in high bills – premium rate services and web access, say – while leaving less expensive services active (including the ability to call 999).
To my knowledge, no one ever died from an inability to access YouTube. And given the choice between a £1,000 bill and the relatively slight inconvenience of contacting my operator to sort things out, I know which I’d prefer.
It’s not all down to service providers though – we all hold some responsibility to monitor our usage. Nor do I want nanny-style regulation. From time to time, we’ll all go over our typical usage by a moderate amount, and that’s fine. But surely it shouldn’t be possible to run up bills tens of times higher than normal with no obligation on our provider to intervene or shoulder part of the financial burden.
Ofcom’s request to consumers to share their experiences is the first step in a process which could see better protection put in place. So if you’ve been a victim of bill shock and want to stop it happening in the future, don’t keep it to yourself.