/ Technology

Putting an end to shock mobile phone bills

Robber stealing phone from bag

Having your mobile stolen is a pretty miserable experience whatever the circumstances. But the crime can be compounded further if the thief uses your phone and runs up a massive bill – which you’re then liable for.

To counter this, the government has announced an agreement with four mobile companies (EE, Three, Virgin Media and Vodafone) to cap bills on phones that have been reported lost or stolen. This would work in a similar way to credit and debit cards, where there’s a £50 liability cap.

It’s a welcome move that’s part of a package announced by the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, who’s been working with telecoms providers to get them to do more to benefit consumers.

There’s no doubt that this cap should protect people from unexpected high bills due to no fault of their own, but what else are the mobile phone companies doing, and should they be doing more?

Fixed Means Fixed

Not unsurprisingly, mobile phone companies have also agreed to stop unexpected mid-contract price rises. They’d have to do this in January 2014 anyway, as following the success of our Fixed Means Fixed campaign, Ofcom ruled that customers can exit their mobile contract without penalty if the provider hikes contract prices.

There is also support for the government’s goal to get rid of roaming charges within the EU by 2016, which, if done correctly, will see people being charged less for using their phones abroad.

These are positive steps, if not ground breaking ones. And you might have noticed that O2, one of the biggest mobile providers, has yet to commit to all of us. We strongly urge all phone providers to sign up – it’s about time mobile users got a fair deal.

A step in the right direction

In addition to the liability cap for lost or stolen phones, we also want you to be able to set your own monthly caps, so that you can control how much you spend to avoid bill shock.

And we want mobile providers and the Government to go even further. They should put an end to confusing mobile phone charges that leave you paying more than you should. We want to see easier switching and simpler mobile phone tariffs, all of which you can read about in this Conversation from Which?’s Richard Lloyd.

Have you ever been hit by a big bill due to a thief running up calls on your lost or stolen phone? What changes would you like to see in the mobile phone industry?


Being able to put a cap on your mobile’s monthly bill , whatever the contract, seems the obvious way to go and covers the fraudulent use scenario.
Considering how automated everything is these days it should be possible to log in and change the cap at will.

Hopefully this will encourage the networks to enable SIM PINs by default on all new SIM cards, as is the norm in many other countries. UK networks’ current failure to do so is only slightly more irresponsible than the customers who fail to activate and change the SIM PIN themselves.

Imagine if debit and credit cards were similarly issued without an active PIN and customers were expected to enable it. PIN-free operation is no more appropriate for SIM cards than it would be for debit and credit cards. It is hardly surprising that thieves are able to run up huge bills using stolen SIM cards if those SIM cards are not protected by a PIN.

Also, Fixed Means Fixed might soon become largely irrelevant. If the European Commission gets its way, you’ll be able to exit a contract after six months irrespective of any price increase. See Article 28(2) of this draft European directive.

I think the Fixed Means Fixed campaign should continue to help companies (and not just phone companies) understand that customers are very strongly opposed to price rises during the period of a contract. Thanks for the information about the draft EC directive, NFH.

One way or other, I foresee that SIM-only contracts will become more popular because phones included in contracts will not have been paid for if customers terminate their contracts early.

I agree that Fixed Means Fixed should continue, but there ought to be legislation that mandates prices in all consumer contracts to remain constant until the minimum term is reached. This should apply irrespective of the industry sector. If businesses want the flexibility to increase prices, then they can stop imposing minimum terms.

I likewise hope that SIM-only contracts will become the norm, as they are in many other countries.

Peter says:
27 January 2014

No PIN for me, thanks, and not just choice, but I feel no ‘need’ for this. Certainly I’d hate it to be the default.

If your network allows you to run up a huge bill without any call to double check the user is the customer, then change network to one that does, or (preferably) use a network which will happily cap the monthly spend and blocks any ‘optional extra’ costs, so international, picture messages, subscriptions to joke lines etc, would all be vetoed automatically.

This a good, companies are being told to play fair. However I find Tesco already give some thing similar already, and there offer the option of capping. Incidentally some good deals from Tesco at moment, maybe worth switching over and good customer service too 🙂

Peter says:
27 January 2014

Not only Tesco Mobile but also Three, when it comes to allowing the customer to request a ‘cap’ on their bill. Mine is capped and after my “included” minutes are used up, I can no longer make calls (but can still text – 5000 allowed per month – and use the internet – unlimited data). It means I am guaranteed not to be hit by a bill for any calls which are not within my calling plan (landline or UK mobile). So no 0845, no international, etc, and if stolen, it would be no good to the thief.

When I was with T-Mobile last year for a while, I asked if I could place a spending cap on my account and they said a cap could be put on but it was outside my control as to how much (and I think they said it started at a limit of 45 pounds over my monthly line rental fee).

Given the fact there is a cap on spending, I don’t want, or need, yet another PIN to remember. No thanks, keep this optional…

Stanley Clark says:
17 March 2014

I wonder is anyone else has had a similar experience to the following.

In September 2012 I purchased a Glaxy mobile phone from Dial-a-Phone and accepted a contract from Orange (Panther 26 plan) which gave me a free phone with 200 anytime minutes, unlimited text messages and 750 MB of data.

It was agreed that I would pay £26 per month for two years.

Towards the end of last year I noticed that sums in excess of £26 were being taken out of my bank account under the Direct Debit arrangement. On viewing my on line account I found numerous amounts of £1.50 being charged to it. There was a reference number adjacent to each of the entries of 88222. On enquiry with Orange I was told that this was a phone number of another company who I had asked to send me text messages. I certainly had not done this and replied that I could recall responding once only to a text message inviting me to enter a competition.

From what I have been told on the phone by Orange and by a company called, Multimedia Services to which they referred me, It appears that by responding to that text message about the competition I was inviting them to send me more texts for which Multimedia was charging me through Orange.

I told Orange that I had only given them a standing order to pay the £26 (subsequently increased to £26.85) and not Multimedia and that I thought that by taking money out of my account and passing it on to a third party was not in order and should be refunded. Orange told me to contact Multimedia for a refund which I did.

Multimedia also insisted that I had asked for the text messages but agreed to refund me the £27 involved less a fee of £10 for administration. That was now over a month ago. On my enquiry about the whereabouts of my refund, which was to be done by means of a text message to take to the post office for the £17, I was told it could take up to 28 days. I am about to give them another reminder.

I think the legality of this situation is in doubt and wonder if others have had similar experiences. I am sure that this cannot be an isolated example.


The telephone companies have not yet developed an ethical solution to the havoc that can be caused by illegitimate use of the device before the loss it reported and it can be cut off. The cap seems a good first step, but it doesn’t get over the problem that many people also use their telephone as their sole Internet access point.

The mobile service providers’ lawyers had set rules that allow them to charge thousands of pounds in illegal calls to premium numbers often set up by organised crime. Of course it may be have been possible to bring a case against the company as an accessory to the crime, but guess what — no victim could afford a lawyer to do this for him.

Mike Roberts says:
20 December 2014

Referring to above comments, why has no lawyer come forward to test this in the courts? Surely some legal firm could offer a “no win no fee” basis. It would give their legal firm a great boost to their reputation and future cases if they won. my own phone was stolen abroad earlier this year and despite being locked the sim was used to rack up over £2000 in a few hours before Icould report it stolen. The company won’t listen to any argument and now the debt has increased due to being passed on to a debt collection agency. I am trying to fight this on my own but no one is listening. It seems only the people with sensational amounts being stolen get journalistic interest which then seems to work in their favour in either getting the bill quashed or substantial reduced.