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Are you keeping unexpected phone charges at bay?

You should always check that you’re calling official numbers when contacting businesses and organisations. Our guest, from the Phone-paid Services Authority, explains why.

This is a guest post by the Phone-paid Services Authority. All views expressed are its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Need to call HMRC, your bank or the delivery company? You should always check that you’re calling their official numbers. Why? Well, if you inadvertently call a third-party connection service, it could set you back as much as £40 for a 10-minute call.

Finding unexpected charges on your phone bill is frustrating at the best of times, but at a time of increased financial hardship for many, call volumes to organisations typically targeted by third-party connection services – such as HMRC, DWP, job centres, benefits helplines, banks and delivery companies – could be on the up.

A third-party connection service will charge you money for information or connection to the end organisation you actually want to call. Calling one of these services can set you back as much as £3.60 a minute plus network access charges, for connection to an organisation that may have a free or standard-rate phone number anyway.

That’s why it’s important to be vigilant, particularly when you’re searching for phone numbers online.

What is the Phone-paid Services Authority?

 At the Phone-paid Services Authority, we regulate the content, goods and services you pay for using your phone bill, such as charity text donations and music streaming subscriptions.

This includes third-party connection services, or ICSS (Information Connection and Signposting Services) as they’re also known.

Complaints to the PSA about ICSS most often mention that the consumer did not realise that they were using a phone-paid service run by a third party with no connection to the organisation they actually wanted to call.

We introduced new stricter rules in December 2019 that make absolutely clear that ICSS must be marketed accurately, clear about the costs involved, and distinct in appearance from the organisation being sought by the consumer. As a result, we are better able to take strong enforcement action against services that don’t follow the rules and mislead consumers.

Advice on third-party connection services

Our advice to you is to take your time when you’re searching for a customer phone number online. The first result that comes up isn’t necessarily the direct phone number for the organisation you want to call.

This is because some companies pay search engines to advertise their services or design their websites so as to appear first in search results. 

Which? scam watch: high-ranking Isa adverts on search engines

If you click on a link, take a few moments to read the URL (website address) and any terms and conditions on the webpage – spending time to do this before you call can save you time, money and hassle in the long run.

If you’ve found a phone number online, before you begin the call it’s worth checking what the phone number starts with. Official helplines usually begin 01, 02, 03 and 080, which are billed at low or standard rates.

Numbers starting 09, 087, 084 and 118 are billed at premium rates, and in addition usually include a network access charge on top of the service charge for the call, increasing the charge made to your phone bill.  

If you have any concerns, use the PSA has a service checker on our website where you can find comprehensive details about providers of phone-paid services. You can also contact us online or by phone on 0300 3030 020 – our contact centre is open as usual during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This was a guest post by the Phone-paid Services Authority. All views expressed were its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Have you ever inadvertently called a third-party connection service? Ever had unexpected bills arrive for calls you thought were made to legitimate numbers?

Let us know in the comments.

Comments

We have come a long way since the days when some people were making expensive calls just to make an appointment with their GP and calling customer service or even making a complaint could involve ringing a costly number. These problems have gone and it is now illegal to provide costly numbers for existing customers. Calls to 0800 numbers using mobiles became free.

We still have to be careful when making enquiries or bookings, but ‘say no to 0870’ is still there and my preference is to use companies that don’t make these charges. It also helps to have inclusive calls on phone tariffs so that calls to 01, 02 and 03 numbers cost nothing apart from time. Which? has been part of making this happen.

It’s sad to hear that some consumers are being exploited by encouraging them to call expensive numbers for third party services but an even more important reason for calling official numbers is to avoid the risk of scams and personal information falling into the wrong hands.

As far as I can remember the only time I have had to pay for a call in the past ten years was for the police non-emergency number. That caught me out because I had blocked chargeable calls on my mobile. Since then the service is free.

Until 20 years ago, I could understand if callers couldn’t easily identify a premium rate number, as they started with a variety of prefixes such as 0853, 0891 and 0898, the last being infamous for adult services. But for 20 years, the most expensive premium rate numbers have operated on easily-identifiable 09 prefixes. Therefore anyone who has lived in the UK for the last 20 years really has no excuse for not identifying an 09 number as being premium rate and therefore a number to avoid dialling.

The widespread abuse by businesses of 084 and 087 numbers, which morphed into disguised premium rate numbers, as well as similar malpractice in other EU countries, led to a ban on businesses using these numbers for calls from existing customers under Article 21 of Directive 2011/83/EU on Consumer Rights, which was enacted in the UK under Regulation 41 of the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013. After more than 6 years, everyone ought to know by now that the use of 084 and 087 numbers is rarely legitimate and that they should be avoided.

New generations come along without the benefit of this history, the elderly may forget the history, and others simply don’t learn. There may be no answer other than banning numbers where the owner makes money out of the call; should they be allowed to do that?

Malcolm. I totally agree that all forms of premium rate numbers should be banned.

I don’t pay any monthly charge for my phone calls. I don’t have a landline and my mobile costs me £0.01/MB, e.g. close to £0/month during lockdown. I phone friends and family for free via WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime. I phone businesses on their free 080 numbers, and if they don’t have one, then I pay €0.01/min to call a UK number using Freevoipdeal from anywhere in the world.

I also believe that all forms of premium rate number should be banned. If a caller needs to pay money to the called party, then this should be a separate transaction from any voice communication. The telephone system should not be misused as a payment system.

Taking this a step further, the concept of needing a phone number to speak to a business needs to be overhauled. I would like to see all businesses allowing their customers to call them using voice-over-IP technology without the use of old-fashioned phone numbers. Netflix already does this whereby you can speak to Netflix over IP directly from its smartphone app without a phone number. If banks implemented the same system, then having already logged into the bank’s mobile app, you wouldn’t need to go through security again when speaking to the bank. But rather than requiring a separate app to speak to each business, a universal technology would be preferable. The advantages would be significant, not only perfect sound quality. For example the customer could quickly select the business’s menu options on-screen instead of onerously having to listen to voice menus, and both speakers would be able to see each other’s names on-screen.

Malcolm Brown says:
14 May 2021

I get about 4 calls a week (mobile & landline) from various 0843 numbers. The ringing lasts only about 5 seconds each time, and the object is to get you to call back, thereby incurring a charge. Of course I am now wise to this but it is still very annoying. I am surprised that this scam cannot be prevented by the phone companies.

Colin Sargeant says:
25 May 2021

PREMIUM RATE PHONE CALLS.
My daughter is 54 years of age she has a learning disability lives alone and tries desperately to live her life independently. She fell victim to a premium phone company when trying to report something to British Gas. She knows how to search things on Google where she was taken to an advert which she took to be British Gas. She rang the number the call length was 13.4 minutes the cost on her EE phone bill £69.41.
She is on benefits and clearly can’t afford to pay this.
After much calling first to EE who were very sympathetic and helped me find the company charging the premium rate I contacted them. The company was A2B Telecom Ltd. I spoke to the regulator that was given to me by EE who are https://psauthority.org.uk/.
Amazingly these calls are legal I suggest they should not be it’s a disgrace it’s nothing short of scam to trap consumers who in my daughter’s case and I suspect many of us are unaware this was happening to them. How many people like my daughter are unable to take up the cudgels and write to them or be even incapable of doing so. Why does this “service” even exist. This is nothing short of what one famous politician referred to as “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”.
This clearly should be stopped. PSA like so many “regulators” are trying to regulate something that for some peculiar reason is considered an acceptable practice. They clearly couldn’t do anything so I consider appeals to them a complete waste of time.
The company A2B Telecom refunded my my daughter’s excessive charge. I explained my daughters financial circumstance to them by e mail and pointing out I was a member of Which. I wonder if it was her Learning disability or the mention of Which that caused them to refund her money. Either way the situation should never have arisen.
I call upon which to take issue with Parliament please on this dishonest practice I fail to see any benefit to consumers why is it allowed?

I agree with you, Colin. Now we have an additional problem of premium rate numbers being used by scammers: https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/premium-rate-number-scams-ay3uY7c0jtju

Until we see action it’s probably best to block calling premium rate numbers on your daughter’s phone. Information can be found on websites or by contacting service providers.

Colin – I am glad you were able to resolve this and get a refund for your daughter.

I agree this particular rip-off should be outlawed. It is a wicked practice that deliberately tries to take advantage of the vulnerable and unwary.

I would have thought Ofcom could regulate against it without having to make new legislation or go through an extensive consultation process. Who could possible object to an outright ban on such exploitation?

It is good of Which? to highlight this problem but I don’t recall seeing a report on any follow-up. The Which guidance referenced by Wavechange says “we’re your consumer champion” but there is no evidence of any action to prove it in this instance.

A really good way to control mobile costs is to use PAYG instead of a contract.

For example, a £6 per month giffgaff goody bag allows unlimited calls to non premium lines and unlimited texts.

That would limit monthly expenditure but I presume that one call to an 09 number would wipe out your credit and you would not be able to make any normal calls.

There are often alternatives to making a phone call.

wavechange – your presumption is incorrect.

Credit spent on a prepaid giffgaff goody bag is ring-fenced as an allowance for normal call texts and data. If you have no other credit, then you simply cannot make any premium rate calls.

Other great value network deals are available, but the giffgaff example shows that no-one needs to be spending more than £6 a month for ordinary calls and texts.

The example I’m quoting is, of course, a sim only deal. For £6 a month you won’t be given an iPhone (or any other expensive phone) as part of the deal. Instead you must provide your own handset.

As the £6 deal does not include much data, I actually use the giffgaff £8 deal myself. My previous O2 contract used to charge me about three times as much for far less.

Unless other PAYG providers operate in the same way as GiffGaff, barring access to premium numbers is surely the best general advice. I recall contributors mentioning that they had spent a great deal of money calling customer service lines before the use of 084 numbers was banned.

wavechange, I did not say that barring access to premium numbers was not good advice, in fact I agree it is good advice. But I do not think it is the only available good advice here.

Using a limited credit balance with a PAYG sim really does limit one’s financial exposure across the full range of telephone services.

You can also control the timing of when you top up, to coincide with when you actually have sufficient funds available. In contrast a regular monthly bill can easily take a poor person overdrawn, if it comes in when they are already skint. That can then lead to usurious overdraft fees.

I expect there are many other providers who operate in the same way as giffgaff and many others who may not. As in all things, customers should read the small print before signing up. I can personally recommend giffgaff, UNLESS you need coverage or support or services that they do not supply.

Another sometimes useful option is a capped contract, if you can get one with sensible call charges. Tesco still do these I think.

I also see a lot of problems caused by phone shops pushing out expensive contract phones to those who can ill afford them in the first place. I expect they make much more money that way, compared to just selling an inexpensive PAYG phone.

I appreciate the benefits of PAYG phones and certainly agree that they can protect those who can least afford costly bills. I recommended barring calls – which can be done on both landlines and mobiles – to Colin because that can be done without any other changes. It’s worth looking at other alternatives too.

One thing to watch for with PAYG phones is credit that expires within a month. I once put a spare phone in the car for emergency use and found that that I had lost my £10 credit. At present my emergency PAYG phone still has most of the £10 credit I had in 2014. I have had to make the occasional call to avoid losing the credit after six months of inactivity.