Got a contract for a phone that doesn't work? Don't think you can hang up: Complaints by mobile users are rising at a breathtaking rate. Harriet Meyer looks at some of the worst offenders and how to deal with them: WHERE TO FIND HELP
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Douglas Stannard was shocked when he was contacted by debt collectors demanding money. "I've always paid bills on time," he says. He received a string of letters and feared a black mark on his credit record after being chased by Orange for payment, despite giving a month's notice to end his contract.
The heavy-handed treatment involved a bill for just pounds 18, and when he queried this Orange said it was a mistake.
"But since then I've received a series of letters until I got a final demand threatening legal action," says Stannard, who has written to Orange five times to no response. "I've also spoken to around eight different people but it seems they're determined to squeeze extra money from customers in the hope they'll give up and pay, ruining credit records in the process."
Stannard's is one of a number of complaints from readers having difficulty cancelling their contracts with mobile phone operators and, in particular, Everything Everywhere (EE), Orange and T-Mobile.
Latest figures given to The Observer by telecoms ombudsman CISAS show that complaints about mobile phone companies are rising steeply, while Citizens Advice received a staggering 28,000 complaints about handsets and services last year.
Typical problems include customers finding their provider refuses to release them from their contract despite not receiving a signal in their area and are therefore unable to make or receive calls, let alone use the internet.
Bob Daniel, from Blisworth, Northamptonshire, says he hit "a brick wall" when trying to communicate with Orange, so he made an official complaint. He signed a 24-month phone contract in January 2013. "The signal was OK then, but by the end of October I was getting no coverage in the evening." He complained and was promised calls back that never came. Eventually, he was told by an engineer that some of the operator's masts had been "turned off" in his area following the merger of Orange and T-Mobile to form EE.
"But they refused to let me leave my contract early, offering only a 50% discount after my persistent complaints about them not keeping their side of the deal." He switched to another network, but continued to receive bills referring to Orange's debt collection process. "They also refused to issue a deadlock letter which you need to go to the ombudsman," he says. "Finally, I was able to submit a formal complaint, but this remains at the arbitration stage."
Consumers are getting increasingly fed-up with poor treatment from mobile phone operators, according to consumer group Which? Executive director Richard Lloyd says: "More and more people are tied to fixed term mobile contracts spanning as long as 24 months and can't always leave if there is a problem.
"We want all mobile providers to be transparent about their contracts so consumers know their rights and that they are getting a fair deal."
In Stannard's case, Orange says that he requested a Porting Authorisation Code (Pac code) when he cancelled the contract so he could transfer his number to another operator. However, as the code wasn't used within 30 days, it expired (Stannard says it was never received) and he was moved on to a rolling contract which led to charges racking up. The sum owed has been waived and his credit file rectified, and Orange has apologised for any inconvenience. Despite his problems, Orange says there are no signal issues in his areas and the case remains with the ombudsman.
New smartphone contracts typically run for 24 months, which is a long time if your circumstances change and you can't pay, use your phone, or find that your contract is subject to a price increase and cheaper deals are available.
A crackdown by regulator Ofcom on providers raising costs midway through a fixed-term contract without an option to cancel saw O2 change its terms and conditions hours after the new rules came into force, with a clause meaning customers forfeit the right to walk away.
Ofcom said the terms were legal if they were clearly flagged at the point of sale. However, if they are buried in the terms and conditions and you aren't given 30 days' notice of a price hike and the right to exit without penalty, you may want to make an official complaint.
The simplest way to get out of a mobile contract before the end of the agreed term is if you're still within the "cooling-off period" which typically lasts from 7-14 days after your contract begins.
If you want to cancel mid-term, contact your service provider and check its policy. Which? says that if you have a poor mobile signal at home you have rights under the Supply of Goods and Services Act.
If there is no mobile signal in your area and you are constantly losing service, you may be able to terminate the contract for non-performance. However, if it is just inside your house that your phone doesn't work, it's a different situation, as it could be something within that is causing the poor signal.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, adds: "You can complain if you think the contract was mis-sold to you on the promise of good coverage."
In some cases your operator may allow you to downgrade your tariff to the cheapest package available for the remainder of your contract term if you are unable to leave your contract.
However, different providers have different policies; for example O2 does not allow downgrades within the first 12 months. Also, check if there are any restrictions if you're getting other free services such as a landline or broadband as these could be affected by a change in your tariff.
¦ Are you having problems with your mobile phone provider? Are you struggling to receive a signal, or having difficultly cancelling your contract? Please write to us at Cash, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email firstname.lastname@example.org putting "mobile phones" in subject field.
If you are unhappy with your service, complain to your mobile network first. Coverage problems, for example, are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
If your complaint isn't resolved after eight weeks, or sooner if you have a "deadlock letter" from your provider, take it to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme. Every mobile service provider must belong to one of two ombudsman services: Communications deals with Vodafone, Three and O2, for example, while the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (CISAS) tackles complaints regarding EE.
According to CISAS, there are two outcomes that cover 60% of cases: the operator decides to offer settlement, or the adjudication process finds in favour of the consumer. Different ombudsmen have different procedures . Each has the power to award compensation up to pounds 5,000 if your complaint is upheld. However, there are no guarantees. Outcomes can include simply being switched to another plan, an explanation of what happened and getting an apology.
For details of which ADR scheme to contact go to consumers.ofcom.org.uk/2009/12/adr-schemes/. For general information call the Which? Consumer Rights Advice Line on 01992 822 829.
Douglas Stannard was chased by debt collectors after ending his contract. Photograph: Mark Passmore
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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