/ Technology

Mobile providers keep deceased customers’ credit

Cartoon of smartphone and UK pound sign

If you don’t use your pay-as-you-go mobile for six months it will be disconnected, your number may be given away and any remaining credit lost. But what happens to your credit when you pass away?

Well, you might not know it, but if a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) customer dies, the provider pockets any remaining credit…

Which? member Sue Paton (pictured) discovered this when her 91-year-old aunt, who seldom used her phone, passed away with £185 worth of credit on her Orange PAYG mobile.

Sue believes that her aunt may not have understood that she didn’t need to keep topping up.


Orange refused to refund the money – as with other mobile providers, it states in its terms and conditions that credit is non-refundable.

And, although Ofcom asks providers to disconnect inactive numbers so that they can be recycled, there’s no guidance on what providers should do with unused credit – so they keep it.

Which? steps in to help

We spoke to Orange, which said:

‘We understand that the death of a loved one is a difficult time… and we have arranged for the sum to be fully refunded.’

This is great news for Sue, but a shame she had to turn to us at Which? to make it happen.

The case of Sue’s aunt is quite specific, but PAYG credit may also be lost if you don’t use your mobile for six months. So whether it’s due to inactivity or another problem, let us know if you’ve ever lost your mobile credit and what your provider did about it.


Unlike many people, I don’t always remember to take my mobile with me when I go out the front door, so I keep a spare mobile in the car. I contacted Vodafone when my spare mobile stopped working and was told that this was because I had not made a call for over 30 days. Vodafone reactivated the phone and restored the credit, and did this again when I forgot to use the phone for another 30 days. I now keep a T-Mobile phone in the car, and this is not cut off after 30 days.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to cut off a phone if it has not been used for 6 months and to reissue the number, but Ofcom should make the decisions and all the phone companies play by the same rules. There should be a way of reclaiming unused credit for up to six years, subject to payment of a modest administration charge.

Vodafone’s prepaid SIM expiry policy is 180 days since the last balance deduction, not 30 days. This is stated in many places on Vodafone’s web site and I can confirm it is also correct in practice, as I keep a Vodafone prepaid SIM card for data roaming in unusual scenarios such as on board aircraft.

NFH – It is probably three or four years since I called Vodafone to say that my PAYG phone had stopped working, and I was told this was because I had not made a call for 30 days. They reactivated it and the credit was unaffected. Since then, I had to make another call for the same reason. My solution was to switch to using the Vodafone phone and keep one on the T-Mobile network in the car for use in emergency.

Perhaps something has changed, but I have met someone who had the same problem and have heard about other cases via websites.

You’d be better off using Giffgaff, Toggle or Three instead, whose charges are significantly lower than Vodafone or T-Mobile. Toggle’s low charges also apply while abroad in many countries as they compete primarily for roaming. However, Toggle is part of Lycamobile whose 90-day expiry policy applies; you’d want to use this one only as your primary mobile.

NFH – I did have a PAYG phone on the 3 network and the credit expired after 30 days. I went back to the shop and they told me that they did not offer a tariff where the credit would remain active for longer. This may have changed, of course. Thanks for the other suggestions, which I will look into.

Three’s official expiry policy is also 180 days since the last balance deduction, not 30 days. However I have a spare Three prepaid SIM card which has always had a zero balance. Obviously with a zero balance, it’s not possible to incur a balance deduction, but it is possible (unofficially) to keep it active by only receiving a call every 180 days.

OK, but having to make a payment every 30 days to be able to make a call means that Three PAYG is not much good for an emergency phone.

Giffgaff recycle numbers just like everyone else but they are cheap. I use the £7.50 Bag which suits me perfectly.

I don’t understand your comment, wavechange. No UK network requires a payment every 30 days in order to keep a prepaid SIM card active. Nearly all UK networks require only a balance deduction (e.g. a call, text or data usage) every 180 days. I don’t understand why you say that Three isn’t suitable as an emergency phone.


I bought a cheap phone from Carphone Warehouse and chose the Three network because that looked like the best deal at the time. I established that the handset was not locked before buying the phone. When the handset stopped working after 30 days I went back to the shop and was told that there was no Three PAYG tariff that would allow me to keep unused credit after that time. I suggested to the sales assistant that it might be helpful if he had told me about this when I bought the phone and then put a Vodafone sim in the handset.

That was a couple of years ago, and the T&Cs might be different now. With Three mobile broadband, credit definitely expires after a fixed period – 30 days, 90 days or a year.

When I bought my first smartphone (Nexus 4) I got a new number with it but kept my old Orange number. That one certainly gets cut off if I don’t make a call every couple of months or so. I keep a card with the reactivate number on it for when it happens. You could not leave an Orange phone in the car.

Peter Morgan says:
5 October 2013

I am glad that the money was returned by Orange (and in similar circumstances of a death, would hope any network would do the same without intervention being needed).

However, surely part of the problem is the mobile industry, moving to expect monthly top-ups from customers, in return for “rewards” or in some cases (like Vodafone deactivating the number) a “penalty” ?

I’ve had PAYG mobiles for well over 15 years. On some I top up a fiver every couple of years, but send a quick text message (so there is chargeable activity) every month or two.

I have never been keen on having a top-up that lasts only 30 days (and most of my numbers are probably 5+ years old, one dates back to ’97, I think), because if you are going to top-up as much as a tenner a month, you may as well have a contract…

Indeed, the networks are probably guilty of changing PAYG so it is pretty much like contract in terms of income, but with a fraction of the allowances. IE a bit of a rip-off.

Refreshing to see one network break the mould, with their 3p/2p/1p tariff but others like Asda PAYG have also been a bit fairer (no 30 day expiry with theirs, either).

I’d suggest people switch from any PAYG network that “requires” monthly top-ups. Get yourself a contract SIM only deal if you are happy with that network, or get a PAC and move your number to somewhere else where you are getting a better deal, lower costs, or credit does not expire.

Oh, and DO use your mobile, on the first of the month, say, to send a friend or relative, a text just to say Hello. If only to ensure your phone does work, and the network cannot claim it is never being used!

When you end a mobile phone contract, many mobile phone companies (O2 in my case) keep the credit that is owed to you unless you make a specific request for it to be returned. You have to know where on their website to request this, and you may have difficulty logging in to the website after you end your contract. O2 sent me an email saying that I didn’t owe them anything, but it neglected to mention that it owed me something. Very cheeky.

Mr P says:
7 October 2013

I’ve just changed providers moving from O2 to Three. Both are/were on a pay monthly tariff. On leaving O2 they stated I owed them nothing but had credit of over £11. I had to fill in a form to recover this credit. Why is this? It should be automatically refunded surely?

Peter Morgan says:
8 October 2013

I had an “automatic” credit after cancelling my contract with T-Mobile (rotten signal, they had removed radio masts, so only used them for 6 months of 12 month contract). They sent me a closing bill explaining there is a further “final” bill with any adjustments (in case one was overseas and had charges still to be identified).

Credit was 1.06 and they sent a CHEQUE… They had been taking payments for 6 months by DD, so had my account info. Whether some firms might send a cheque on the basis many don’t find time to go to the bank, so might not “cash” it, I don’t know, but this seems almost a deliberate tactic to keep the money as long as possible.

Am unlikely to use T-Mobile again now back with Three, but did find the CS staff very friendly on T-Mobile. I believe they may have been in the Far East, but English was great, politeness and cheerful, friendly people, made them far better experience than almost any other CS I’ve dealt with in last 30 years. Just a shame the network signals were so poor.

My very first phone was on One 2 One…..I think there T-Mobile now….

I was a little bit on a loner at school with no friends so really I didn’t need a phone. But I loved the fact I could listen to the FM Radio while walking to and from school & pay snake on my Nokia.

I had a txt from One 2 One saying my phone would stop working if I didn’t top-up within the next 30 days. When my mum phoned them they said I had not made a call for (i think) 180 days.

My mum was not happy, but she put £10 on there for me.

This Conversation reminded me that it is months since I made a call from the PAYG phone that I keep in the car. I last used it when I could not get a signal on Vodafone and must have left it somewhere. The last time I put credit on that sim card was before One2One was taken over by T-Mobile, more than ten years ago. It would be too embarrassing to try and recover the credit. 🙂

I will have to go and buy a new cheap PAYG phone to keep in the car. Can anyone tell me which network allows the longest period of inactivity before disconnection? As I mentioned above, Vodafone only allows 30 days.

Nearly all UK networks (primary and virtual) have an expiry policy of six months since the last balance deduction. Although this is the official policy, it is often sufficient only to receive a call every six months because this generates revenue, albeit small, for the network. The most notable exception is Lycamobile which operates a 90-day expiry policy since the last balance deduction in all of the countries in which it issues SIM cards.

Peter Morgan says:
8 October 2013

Might be worth checking / asking via the Asda Mobile site. They’re effectively “relaunching” their PAYG service. Credit of 5 quid should get you started (and their pricing is fairly low). Not had any problem with them while they were with Vodafone (but they have switched to EE and I may need a new SIM). Suggest you ask since they are switching to use another network.

Hmmm, now I think of it, I must use up my credit while they are still with Vodafone in case the new SIM (for EE/ Orange/ T-Mobile) is as unusable as when I was with T-Mobile (a signal problem where I live).

We run 3 PAYG mobile phones on Tesco (02) and simply top up £10 at a time by credit card – they aren’t used for long calls. Until reading this conversation, I would not have dreamed of recovering pre-paid tariff if I ceased using the service. I regarded it as like buying just another consumable – biscuits, stamps, petrol. But I suppose like Road Fund Licence, season ticket or insurance it should be recoverable in principle. Just how much do others top up their mobiles to?

I have had a look into Vodafone’s T&C’s for PAYG. Here is a copy of some of the information on their website:

6. Suspension, disconnection and ending the agreement
6a.We can suspend (in other words bar), restrict or stop providing the services (all or part of them) in the following circumstances:

(1) If we believe your mobile equipment or the services are being used in a way we do not allow under this agreement.
(2)If we believe that the right to use any number or password used in relation to the services or your mobile equipment is or has been gained in an unauthorised, illegal, improper or fraudulent way.
(3) You choose not to use the service for 180 days. Using this service means making any chargeable outbound calls (but not calls to 191) or topping up your account.


6b If we suspend the mobile equipment because you have chosen not to use the services (as defined in 6a3 above) for 90 days, we will, if you ask within 90 days of the suspension, reconnect the services and make available any previous credit held on your account at the time of the suspension. If you have not kept to this agreement or not used the services for 180 days, and we disconnect your mobile equipment, you will lose any credit held on your account.

I assume that this means that an account will remain active for 180 days and you have 90 days to reactivate a suspended account and reclaim the credit.

I have seen figures for the amount of money in dormant bank and building society accounts but I wonder how much the phone companies make from suspended PAYG accounts.

The difference between the banks and the mobile networks is that UK mobile networks make no effort (even via automated means) to inform a customer before the SIM card expires, even if they have the customer’s e-mail address. On the contrary, when my T-Mobile USA SIM card was about to expire recently, they sent me an e-mail warning me, telling me my credit balance, its expiry date and what I had to do to keep it active.

We seem to follow the US in many ways, so perhaps we can look forward to improvement in the services offered by mobile networks in the UK.

You expressed surprise about my tales about Vodafone and Three. They are true and probably what happened in the past rather than nowadays.

I wonder if the mobile networks in other countries are forbidden from increasing monthly contract payments during the contract. If so, we definitely need to follow suit. 🙂

In many other countries, people don’t take out long contracts with disguised loans for handsets from the mobile networks. Instead they buy full-price handsets and get a SIM-only contract or prepaid. In some countries, bundles are not common; customers pay only for what they use at a reasonable price. Consequently the networks receive revenue only when they deliver the service and they then make sure that the quality of the service is excellent. In countries like the UK where bundles are common, the networks have little incentive to provide a quality service, because they receive a guaranteed income regardless of customers’ usage.

We should move towards SIM-free handsets and SIM-only contracts with a ban on bundles. Bundles are of no benefit to consumers (except for unlimited usage), as they allow the networks to charge for more than a customer’s actual usage or to charge an unreasonably punitive price for additional usage if they go over the allowance.

I agree. I opted for a cheap sim-only contract recently despite repeated efforts to get me to take a two year contract on a shiny new handset. But we are a bit off-topic now.

Peter Morgan says:
8 October 2013

Sorry, I have to say I disagree with suggesting there be a ban on bundles and move towards a SIM free handsets / SIM only contracts.

The simple fact is that the networks make it possible for more people to have a mobile (fairly essential if seeking a job, to be able to answer whenever you are called), and while it may be true that some people pay a bit more for a “bundle” and then don’t use it to its full, they do provide PAYG customers an option of cheaper calls / texts / data for a limited period, where the other option would need them to have a contract to get the price anywhere near comparable.

The bad part these days is that some PAYG service is based only on a payment and credit which “expires” after a limited number of days. That’s something I dislike and will not use. I found Asda (and since July, Three) offer PAYG without need for another top-up after 30 days… the credit doesn’t expire so long as one uses the phone say once a month or quarter.

Both providers *offer* bundles but don’t force them on the customer. Such bundles do expire (not unreasonable) but also offer good value to those who choose to use them.

Why should PAYG customers have to buy a bundle in order to pay a reasonable price for the service? Bundles should be banned so that mobile networks have to charge a competitive and transparent price per minute, per text or per megabyte. For example, look what Three is doing with its 3p/min, 2p/text and 1p/MB – no need to buy a bundle because the charges are competitive. The purpose of bundles is not for the customer’s benefit, but to allow the network to force the customer to buy more than they need, otherwise they will pay a punitively high non-bundled price.

What do you think is wrong with a 180-day expiry policy since the last balance deduction? That seems quite fair to me. If I compare this to all my SIM cards I use in other countries, the UK has one of the most favourable expiry policies, beaten only by Kyivstar in Ukraine (365 days since the last balance deduction) and Vodacom in South Africa (215 days since the last incoming or outgoing communication). If you think UK mobile networks’ expiry policies are bad at 180 days, try looking at French networks where balance deductions are not sufficient; you actually have to add a minimum amount of credit periodically, even if you still have plenty of credit left.

Peter Morgan says:
11 October 2013

> Bundles should be banned …

No. You are trying to force a “binary” solution when there should be many options.

Three offers low prices for PAYG (and Asda, Tesco’s Lite PAYG tariffs are lower than some), and I use both Three and Asda. What I object to is a 30 day limit on any top-up. I don’t object to bundles as a bundle may give a customer very significant savings *if they choose to use that option*

Your desire to “ban” all bundles might have the right motivation (to get lower prices across the board) but it does not have to be an EITHER / OR situation. You seem to want to exclude bundles completely, while I see a place for them IN ADDITION to lower prices across the board.

Anyway, we’re both entitled to our opinions, I doubt I’ll change your mind and you certainly won’t change my mind on the matter of bundles.

> What do you think is wrong with a 180-day expiry policy

if that was addressed to me, and I have to assume it was, following on so closely in date, then I have no objection to that, and have never suggested an objection to it.

We have 3 Tesco mobiles on PAYG. We do not use them much, but last night thought in an idle moment I would check what we were paying. Calls were 25p/min. texts 10p. When I looked on Tesco’s website I eventually came across a “Lite” tariff that was 8p/min for calls and 4p for texts. I had a live discussion through their site and was told I could be changed to the Lite tariff within 24 hours – which I did on all phones by giving them the phone number and SIM card numbers – all very easy and efficient. When I asked why we were on their standard tariff I was told all their SIM cards are acivated on Standard tariff, but Lite has always been available. What was the disadvantage of Lite? – customer care calls cost 8p/min instead of 20p for unlimited time (not a service I use).
I’ve emailed Tesco to suggest we have never been told about Lite (although we do receive texts from them about bundles and triple top ups) and seem to have been paying unecessarily high charges (albeit we only spend om average £70 a year on topping up these phones).
Have I just been naive and missed something obvious? Is everyone else on Tesco mobile using Lite except us?
I am sorry if this departs from the topic, but thought it might be an opportunity to ask.
Incidentally, Which PAYG report says nothing, as far as I can see, about a Tesco Lite tariff. Did you know about it?

The Engineer says:
11 October 2013

We fell foul of the Vodaphone Dongle small print. 1 Gb lifetime with no regular top up was the sales line when we shelled out £35 for the dongle. Used when arranging my Dads funeral and following three weeks. However when I needed it for my Mum a year later it didn’t work. Expensive phone call to support line explained why. Yes the small print says if it isn’t used every 180 days then they keep the money. When I buy something I expect it to be mine to use as I want and not have my money “stolen” just because I don’t conform to someone else’s stereotype.
Also use the Lite Tesco since a tip off from university friend, and am using Three on new smart phone – it just doesn’t have a signal at my home or my Mum’s – so stand outside to occasionally get connected but NBG for a phone.

Peter Morgan says:
12 October 2013

Three has coverage maps on the web site, so does it show coverage, and if so, have you asked them why you have problems both at your home and your Mum’s ? Do you know anyone who could loan you a different 3G phone to try for a week or two, in case it’s your mobile which is less sensitive than it should be? Only ask because of the problems Apple had with one of the iPhones a while back, and signal problems can be either end (transmitter or handset), or topography…

George McNeill says:
11 October 2013

My sister died in suddenly in July and had £307.00 credit on her T-Mobile payg phone. I requested a refund which was initially refused. I contacted Which? and was told what to do, and as a result the credit was forwarded to my solicitor.
Living in Northern Ireland, Which? Legal is limited as to the help they can give, but they can advise generally.

Have just read comments from George McNeill, N. Ireland. As I have the same problem, what advice did Which? give which would enable me to recover my credit.

I’ve been on Orange PAYG for over 15 years with no problems until EE came on the scene and now I have no network coverage for either calls or texts. I’ve spoken to customer services who confirmed there was no longer coverage in my area, but have refused to refund my outstanding balance. What can I do?

Pete says:
7 November 2013

I just switched my PAYG phone from Vodafone to T-Mobile, due to unreliable Vodafone signal. There was £16.00 remaining on my Vodafone account which they are refusing to refund. Is this legal?


Kath says:
19 April 2014

6 month cut-off puts lives at risk

About 12 years ago, I bought a One2One (now T-Mobile) PAYG mobile and the credit built up to £120. It was only used when the clocks changed as a means of adjusting the time on my landline phone. Last October, my balance was between £40 and £50, but by March it had all been stolen by T-Mobile and the balance was 25p. I got the 6 month no use excuse – since when was it over 6 months from October to March? All attempts to get the balance reinstated have failed, although they have reinstated the line, which was disconnected after my first call to their “help” line. They did not even tell me that they were making an unauthorised withdrawal from my account.
Once again the most vulnerable are being hit hardest by this policy. Many elderly people use a mobile as an emergency alarm system, in addition to making actual calls in an emergency. Some phones have an SOS button which sends an alert message to specified numbers until one of them responds. No need for arthritic fingers to struggle with text, and suitable for all kinds of emergency situations.

Because I have Parkinsons, the phone is my lifeline to help if I have a fall or need other urgent assistance. Imagine the additional stress of discovering that the SOS button had not called for help because (a) the line had been re-allocated, and/or (b) there was no credit balance, despite T-Mobile having had the benefit of £100+ for pre-paid calls for around 12 years. Who else takes your money up front, fails to supply the goods or services, penalises you, and gets away with this fraud? The new terms and conditions look like a charter for bypassing both Sale of Goods and criminal legislation. This is plain and simple theft – my bank would reimburse me for an unauthorised withdrawal like this from my bank account, and hopefully not because they were the perpetrators of the theft.

Here is a wonderful opportunity for the mobile phone companies to provide a really valuable service for elderly people, but unfortunately they can’t see past those with their mobiles clamped to their ears or stuck to their fingertips. How long will it be before someone dies because at the critical time they needed it, their SOS button lifeline had been cut off, or the balance had been stolen? And will the phone companies really give a jot, or just get their PR man on TV to come out with all the usual platitudes? I know which my money’s on! Shameful.

Niki says:
5 May 2014

I had not used my tescp pay as go for a year as it was bought for visitors from overseas and as an emergency car. I just found out that the phone had been de-activated so I called Tesco Mobile. They told me they will activate it but I will lose the credit I had on it. It was strange because the first question they asked me was ‘Can you tell us approximately how much credit it had?’, when I told then it looked like they used it to verify things but then they they turned around and said I won’t get the credit back. I asked why and they said because we have no record of it, we wiped the information of the entire sim from our system. REALLY? But they asked me for the sim number to activate the card, and it takes only one extra field in the record to store the credit that contains my infomation which they had so handy after all this time.

This is just another way for mobile companies to cheat customers using any hole in the system regulations.

Tesco’s published terms and conditions include: “5.4 If you do not use your Mobile Phone for six months we will disconnect you and you will lose your Credits and Mobile Phone number. If your Mobile Phone is disconnected and you would like to reconnect it, you must call Customer Care. If we agree to reconnect you, you must pay a reconnection fee. Details of the current reconnection fee are available by calling Customer Care.” Presumably this is common to other providers, and among other things enables an unused phone number to be reused. I have Tesco payg phones and only ever top up with £10 so liitle at stake.

Ripped Off says:
7 August 2014

1. All mobile phone companies should have the SAME inactivity period for PAYG SIMs.
2. The period of inactivity should be longer before termination (12 or 24 months).
3. Any prepaid credit on a PAYG SIM that is terminated after a period of inactivity should be refunded to the account holder (if name/adddress had been registered for that SIM), at the time of deactivation/termination.

Just lost £10 UNUSED credit on a Lebara PAYG SIM. Obviously, they won’t refund it as it is in their terms and conditions that they get to keep my unused credit if i dont make a chargeable call within 84 days. Does the Unfair Terms and Conditions Act 1977 apply?

Whats the point of Ofgem other than being a useless quango that is toothless in consumers protection: How long have we all been getting shafted by nuisance calls/PPI calls/marketing calls/silent calls/unwanted calls/residential call packages that exclude non-geographic business/govt numbers/unfair T&Cs like the unused credit being pocketed by these companies?

So if you have saving in a bank and use don’t use that account for a period of time eg. 84 days does the bank get to keep the funds in your inactive account?

Ripped Off says:
7 August 2014

Feel i’ve been scammed 🙁

Legal Scam by Lebara says:
17 November 2014

I have been scammed by Lebara.
I had credit on my sim and not used it for a while. Lebara terminated my sim and classified as expired even though I had a lot of credit left on my sim. It seems this is legal and they can take your money without informing you.

OFCOM is sitting back and not doing anything, they are totally useless.

Come “Which” take this on, sort out these scammers.

Bottom line is some people will forget.Simple.happened to me as I have other contract phones but need pay go for incoming only/
Its funny how they send you text reminders about everything else BUT this/

they should inform you b4 it happens as a sending of 1 text covers 6 months, simple.

That’s my issue with it. however, I came on the phone and argued it back . took an hour but they gave it back.
but I work in complaints dept myself