/ Technology

Ofcom’s action plan to stop mobile ‘bill shock’ – will it work?

A catchy term, ‘bill shock’ describes the sickening sense of panic that can accompany a phone bill racked up while on holiday. There are already spending caps in Europe, but Ofcom wants these extended worldwide.

Is it wrong to expect protection from charges we’ve incurred due to how we’ve used our own phones?

Or would that be like objecting to a restaurant bill because you didn’t look at the prices and ate (and drank) more than you’d budgeted for?

Isn’t it a bit naïve to expect mobile phone companies to warn us that we’re spending too much?

Well no, no and no, actually. Vigilant as you may be, it’s not easy to monitor how much data you’re chewing through when you’re abroad – and mobile phone companies can be less than forward about what they’re charging you.

Widespread mobile bill shock

The European Commission has capped charges for calls made and received in the EU and a cut-off kicks in if you incur a €50 bill – but that doesn’t apply if you jet off to more exotic destinations outside of Europe.

According to Ofcom’s latest review, which closed yesterday after a long 10 month consultation, as many as 1.4 million mobile phone customers may have been affected by ‘bill shock’ over the last six months.

The most common unexpected charges are data downloads outside the EU, UK data use (when customers haven’t realised how much data they’re using), exceeding a tariff’s call allowances and charges on lost or stolen phones.

Ofcom’s ‘action plan’

So what’s Ofcom’s plan of action? To start with, it’s supporting proposals to extend the EU spending caps so that they apply worldwide.

However, this won’t come in to force until July at the earliest. In the meantime, Ofcom is simply ‘urging’ UK providers to voluntarily introduce spending caps and alerts. And worldwide caps may seem obvious, but how will this protection be enforced outside of Europe?

One proposal that does make sense is greater transparency for phone tariffs. Mobile providers should offer clearer information about what they charge for services in the UK and abroad.

We’re getting more used to tariffs allowing unlimited use, so it’s hard enough to keep tabs on the number of texts and minutes you’ve got left, never mind data when you’re using your smartphone as a computer, TV, sat nav and everything else.

Still, it should be easier to find your data allowance and translate it in to real terms, so you know what you’re using and what you’ll be charged if you go over your allowance.

And shouldn’t there be greater protection from hefty data charges? For instance, we helped one Which? Convo reader who was sent a £12,000 bill from their mobile provider – surely a spending alert could have been sent and a data cap implemented before this point?

What do you think? Should UK mobile providers be forced to protect their customers from bill shocks? Or is it our own responsibility to find out how much we’ll be charged if we use data abroad and make sure we don’t use too much?


I suggest that phone providers allow contract holders to display their current balance and set a maximum cost per connection. Mobile phone companies do not have a very good reputation with customers at present and doing what I have suggested could help them gain more respect.

In the meantime I will stick to PAYG, safe in the knowledge that I cannot lose more than £20 at any time.

This proposal is well overdue. A mobile contract is really like a credit agreement. What lender would not impose some sort of credit limit? Furthermore out of bundle tariff can be very obscure. eg that five figure texts are NOT included in your bundle or that some 077 numbers are not actually mobiles. As for data, it is almost impossible to know how much data you are downloading.

Keith B says:
3 March 2012

I received a £840 monthly bill from a large mobile phone provider 12m ago for data charges alone (a meagre 250MB of data above the monthly allowance of 500MB). Had no idea how much data had been downloaded by phone when updating mapping software app. After several months of discussions, the mobile phone company agreed to wipe out the data bill completely; concern was that the phone switched between a weak wifi signal from the router in my home (unmetered) to a 3G mobile internet source (metered as above) without any warning. I could have downloaded over 15GB of data without any warnings (£840 x 60 = £50,400) – now that would have been a monthly bill shock to remember!

Lisa says:
3 March 2012

My last bill was big due to running past my minutes limit and calling several 08 numbers for utilities companies. I upped my minutes as soon as I knew, but still had bill for £42. I complained and received a 50% reduction in my bill credited to next month.

Landlines are still popular among those who want to keep costs down. I know a fair number of people who are opting for cheaper contracts or PAYG, and one friend has recently had his landline reconnected.

The mobile service providers don’t seem to be interested in helping customers keep their costs down. For example, Virgin sends me a text every month to tell me that they have just added my monthly text and minutes allowance to my pay-monthly contract. I don’t care, what I really want to know is when I have just used up all of my allowance. But they refuse to provide such a notification.

Anne P says:
4 March 2012

I moved my my two step daughters to Vodafone in January in a Vodafone shop, and on the same evening arranged my own upgarede. The three contracts and handsets took a very long time to arrange and by the time it was all concluded it was after 8pm. I had repeatedly stressed that my older step daughter texted a great deal and needed unlimited texts while the younger one needed only 500 texts per month, so when the three contracts were presented I signed them without noticing that my older step daughter had only 500 texts. The assistant had been so attentive and helpful and had been left in no doubt as to my requirements so trusted that i was signing appropriately chosen contracts. I expected a bill for the three of us of approximately £50-£60 but was charged £279. My older stepdaughter had sent 1562 texts, 1062 of which had cost 12p each and they had also charged for texts on the younger one’s bill due to the proportionate rate which applied on the first month as she started using the phone towards the end of the month. This had not been mentioned at all and this charge of £25.35 has been credited. They say that as i have signed the contract there is nothing they can do about the large bill so i would stress to all readers that they cannot trust that the contract discussed is in fact the one given and that if they do not check before signing they could also get a very unpleasant shock when the first bill arrives. The matter was made worse by the fact that when they texted me about unusual usage i could not access the information given, as the hand set i received in January did not allow number selection while on a call. It also ceases to receive and send calls and messages frequently until it has been switched off and on. The shop has confirmed that the handset is faulty and will repair it. I am so very disappointed as i have been a Vodafone customer since i got my first phone about 12 years ago and i have always trusted my local shop. When i visited to arrange these contarcts i explainecd that as i had been made reduntant this year i needed to save every penny i could so wanted to move the girls to the same network as myself and my husband, but instead i have a bill which is causing us extreme financial difficulty. .

Mark says:
6 March 2012

‘Bill shock’ would largely cease if telecom firms allowed the consumer to choose what credit limit is set on their mobile phone rather this being only their decision – many people would prefer a credit limit LOWER than the mobile firm is willing to set. For some people, they will want a credit limit a little above the contract terms (eg 100 mins, 500 texts, etc) after which the phone will cease working until topped up, other people may prefer to set a very high limit if permitted by the telecom firm. Contracts are much better value than PAYG but only if you keep strictly to their terms. As others have pointed out, this is far from easy to do.
At the moment, it is the worst of all worlds – the consumer has little idea what they’ve used up and if they go over their contract terms, the bill can keep racking up to whatever the credit limit set by the phone company is (I think some are unlimited) and they’ll only find out when they get the bill a few weeks later. I think this is especially important for mobile phone given by parents to their children. It’s not cost effective to give a teenager a PAYG phone for say £5 per month – it will run out in half a day – but a contract can be exceeded up to the mobile phone operator’s own credit limit which might be hundreds of pounds.
NOTE: Virgin Mobile has the lowest credit limit of £50, ie if you opt for this, whatever your contract terms you can’t spend more than £50pcm.
Another bug bear of mine is so called UNLIMITED contracts which aren’t. My children have been caught out by an unlimited text contract which unknown to them and me had a limit of 3,000 texts. Yes, they managed to exceed that in one month!
My advice to anyone who suffers ‘bill shock’ is a) take it up with the telecoms firm and b) if they reject your legitimate complaints, take it to the relevant telecoms ombudsman -details on Ofcom website.

Syed says:
10 April 2012

In Jan 2012 I’ve been charged £880 from Orange, said you used 750MB data more than 500MB of usage. Luckily I checked through my mobile app. It was their fault not mine but it took a month to resolve that issue and guess what? very next month they told me you made call a number which is in charging list. amazingly that number still not in their list and nor they text me that they are starting charging on that number. Lets see how long will it take to clear the debt of £150.

jermaine says:
19 April 2012

i keep getting charged for my phone roaming unexpectly when i’m just out travel to work. this puzzling because i only travel around south london. but i’m getting big bills like £120 or £70 a month. i phoned t mobile and they said they will look into it for me. but have not got back yet!!!

Susan Northcott says:
15 May 2012

I received a text on Thursday 10th May requesting I turn my phone off and on again which I did.
I then discovered that I could not call out “calls from this number are barred”
I then rang customer services and they said a bar had been placed on the phone due to excessive usage and that I owed £5663.72. They then transfered me to another department who said I had streamed 6.5gb of data in April.
They have reduced the bill as per their bundle pricing strategy to that of £20 per gb so I now owe £184.85.
I have contacted Citizens advice/ writing a letter of complaint to head office of orange and now the pain of complaining when I have been let down. Agree spending cap should be allowed.

Susan Northcott says:
15 May 2012

Also to add to this I have not even been out of the country!!!

Irene says:
21 January 2014


Andrew Allsop says:
16 May 2012

I had my phone stolen in Barcelona, barcelona Vodafone told me to tell my store when i get home that its stolen, within 3 days off getting home they had racked up a bill of £2500. im trying to fight the case, do i have a case to fight?

I have two mobile phones with Virgin which are for my children. When my daughters bill went up to £35 I rang and asked for a limit of £50 put on her account ( I was unaware of a credit limit at the time) I thought as soon as they used there free minutes and texts I would be told. Just recently my daughters bill was £94 when I checked the limit it has been put back up to £150 without my say so. What are my rights over this

Kirsty simmons says:
31 May 2012

I have 2 phones and Internet with orange. My daughter has one of the phones and recently went on holiday with her dad to America. Her phone is a blackberry of which she receives bbm messages. She was receiving these messages and sent very few, we have just received the bill and it is £387 which I really cannot afford. I spoke to orange and they said there was nothing else they could do. She has had this phone over the contracted period & so I Sao I wanted to cancel the contract. The reply I got was ” is there any particular reason you want to cancel the contract” ridiculous I thought under the circumstances!! I am very disappointed . I am a single mum that works full time & am only just keeping my head above water.

Irene says:
21 January 2014

Orange are awful!!!

par ailleurs says:
31 May 2012

I have a contract smart phone for use normally but I keep my old PAYG for travel in Europe. I let the people who matter know which number to use and business contacts can wait till I return from holiday. I firmly believe in holidays being just that. Result-my old phone keeps a charge for at least a week rather than 2 days max and no surprises with big bills.

gopal says:
25 November 2012

My wife ended up using 4 hours outside her 10 hour allowanc e and there was no respite from O2
The bill was 88 pounds instead of 32
This was only found out because O2 sent a message you are 40 pounds over your bill
I asked the customer services q hypothetical they Did not not ify once was over
No response for that
The biggest call was for 25 pounds a 85 min call to a local land line

While walking recently in Cumbria found my mobile phone ( on Orange) had connected to a cell on the Isle of Man over 50 miles away. as no local transmitters were in range.
Lucky not to have used any data or made any calls as this would have been at International rates.
There seems no way of stopping this happening.

Simon Jenkins says:
16 January 2013

Why does the Eu regulation to limit data shock only extend to roaming and not to all data useage. A cap of E50 would cut out all this profitering by mobile companies. Fair use policy does not exist as who would spend their monthly income on a phone bill intentionally. The providers have the ability to set a limit, but Orange for example choose 5000mb. Enough to hit you in the pocket! I think the mobile companies could be facing a PPI type problem if they dont take their responsibility seriously.

Irene says:
21 January 2014

I agree!!!

Simon Jenkins says:
16 January 2013

Ofcom should be sorting out UK data use rather than worrying about Worldwide use.

Raddleman says:
1 February 2013

Last March 12 Ofcom said in a press release that it was tackling together with the industry the lack of call charge capping in order to prevent bill shock.

I cannot find any recent updates Has this been kicked into the long grass – never to be implemented??

Irene says:
21 January 2014

Mobile phone companies should set low credit limits!!