David Hickson's Media Releases

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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Virgin Media overcharging callers trying to avoid Tesco Business Rate numbers

Virgin Media has acknowledged a systemic billing error, which involved charging callers who dialled local geographic numbers as if they had made an "Operator Connected" call to a 0845 number!

The error has been corrected and I am told that all overcharges will be refunded.

The problem

Tesco recently introduced Business Rate 0845 telephone numbers, at any additional cost of up to 41p per minute, for calls to its local stores.
(This decision warrants comment and attention in itself.)

The website www.SayNoTo0870.com publishes the original local geographic numbers as alternatives for the 0845's, because these are found to be still working.

A member of the SayNoTo0870 discussion forum reported that Virgin Media had mischarged them for a call to one of these local numbers - others reported identical experiences.

Virgin Media billing representatives maintained the charges, claiming that they were correct and proper. They even suggested that SayNoTo0870 and Tesco were responsible for misrepresenting the charges for calling geographic numbers!

Achieving the resolution

I made a test call, dialling a 0121 number on my Virgin Media line when such a call should have cost me nothing.
I was charged £4.87, for an "Operator Connected" call to a 0845 number! This reflected the experience reported by others.

I had discussed my intention to make this call with Virgin Media before doing so and followed up when I saw the incorrect charge being levied. After initial resistance - "the call was charged at the correct destination rate", Virgin Media agreed to investigate this matter properly, as that statement was clearly untrue.

The outcome of this investigation was a determination that all calls such as mine had been billed incorrectly.

I am told that the error has been corrected and that all overcharges will be refunded.
(I understand that Virgin Media has prepared a statement giving full details.)

Tesco is not alone

Although its main competitors appear to retain local numbers for their stores, Tesco is not alone in choosing to use Business Rate 0845 numbers for callers who are making enquiries by telephone.
Her Majesties Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions agencies, NHS Direct and NHS 24 do the same.

They could all readily use 03 (Geographic Rate) numbers to support the complex telephone technology used, without causing callers to pay to subsidise it. Although 0845 numbers provide a subsidy of around 2p per minute from every call, the premium cost to the caller can be as great as an additional 41p per minute.

(Some telephone providers, not Virgin Media, include calls to 0845 numbers in packages - so that all customers are compelled to fund the premium, whether or not they actually call these numbers.)

I Comment

All those who wish to add a "Service Charge" to what we each pay our own provider for a telephone call should declare the level of the charge and justify its imposition. This applies to Tesco, but even more so to the public bodies listed above. They may not be responsible for the level of the "Access Charge" added by the telephone service provider, but it is the imposition of the "Service Charge", from which they benefit, which causes premium charges to be applied to these calls.

Those who simply want to take advantage of the additional features available with "non-geographic numbers", without imposing the cost of these features on callers, must now be using 03 numbers. These are charged at "Geographic Rate"(i.e. no more than the cost of a call to a 01/02 number) from all types of telephone and all types of contract - if 01/02 calls are free of a call charge, as is now generally the case, so are 03. Migration to 03 is assisted by the equivalent 034 number for every 084 number being reserved for the purpose of migration.

I cannot see how HRMC, DWP and NHS bodies can possibly justify their imposition of a service charge on callers. Tesco may struggle, but that is its business.

Whilst I am pleased to have been able to assist Virgin Media in getting this particular problem resolved, I am concerned that others who raised the issue were batted away. My call was purely for test purposes, whereas others had genuinely called these numbers, which are still published in various places.


I have published a summary of calling costs for various types of numbers under commonly used arrangements - this includes links to the published tariff tables.

"Business Rate" is the term now used by Ofcom to describe numbers which have a lower level of "Service Charge" (up to 10p per minute) than "Premium Rate". The principle is exactly the same, although the regulation is different.
Virgin Media has prepared a statement - contact their Senior PR Manager, Joanna Smith, for details.
Tesco has declined my invitation to comment. The claim on its website (see How to contact us), that a call to a 0845 number "costs 6p, plus up to 2p per minute for BT Calling Plans", is completely wrong and totally misleading.
The discussion thread in the SayNoTo0870 forum is found at this link. (I use the forum nickname "Silent Calls Victim")
To find the list of numbers involved enter "Tesco" at this link
Whilst Virgin Media was imposing and enforcing these charges, it stood in breach of its duties under the regulatory "General Conditions". I have therefore formally notified Ofcom. It will be for Ofcom to decide whether or not to investigate this matter and consider imposing a financial penalty on Virgin Media.
I campaign primarily against improper use of 084 numbers by public bodies - in general, and in particular in the NHS. I am however engaged in other issues relating to home telephones and call centres.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Calling Citizens Advice for advice? - best to use a mobile and check SayNoTo0870 first

The website SayNoTo0870.com has revealed a telephone scam being practised by Citizens Advice. See this posting in its discussion forum.

From next April, Citizens Advice will take over the function of providing consumer advice by telephone on behalf of the government, as the present "Consumer Direct" service is withdrawn.

Citizens Advice is starting to roll out a new national advice line telephone number for England - 08444 111 444. (Like all such 0844 numbers, the revenue share that it passed on to the called party causes it to be charged at a premium when called from landlines, mobiles and payphones and excluded from call inclusive packages.)

SayNoTo0870 has discovered that there is an alternative number available - 0300 330 0650. (Like all 03 numbers, this is charged at the same rate as calls to geographic numbers, i.e. included in calling packages free of any call charge for most contract mobiles and landlines.)

There are however two catches for this alternative number:

It is only available to callers from mobiles. Those with both a landline and a contract mobile phone are best advised to call using the latter. Payphone users must recognise that they have been overlooked.
It is not publicised by Citizens Advice. One assumes that mobile callers are expected to pay to call the expensive number first, in order to be told the number that they should have dialled. Even then, they are offered the opportunity to continue with the call at premium rates! Those who would expect a landline call to be cheaper are not made aware that this is probably untrue.

This causes concern in two ways:

Citizens Advice declares a principle that "The service provides free, independent, confidential and impartial advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities".
The 5p per minute subsidy which it earns from calls to the 0844 number, at the expense of callers and without being declared, directly contradicts that principle.
In its consultation on the arrangements for the transfer of responsibility for the Consumer Direct advice function to Citizens Advice, the government states "For consumers to be empowered it is essential that they have information about goods and services which they can use to exercise choice"
By understating the cost of calling from a landline and withholding details of the alternative option, Citizens Advice places itself in direct contradiction of this principle.

Government-funded consumer advice already comes at a price, as the present Consumer Direct service uses 08454 04 05 06. Calls to this number include a "Service Charge" of 2p per minute, plus an "Access Charge" of up to 39p per minute. Calls to 08444 111 444 invariably include a "Service Charge" of 5p per minute, plus an "Access Charge" of up to 36p per minute.

Although some landline callers pay the service charge on 0845 calls through their package subscription, there is little difference between 0845 and 0844 – both are now classed by Ofcom as "Business Rate".

From April 2013, Citizens Advice will also take on the role of Consumer Advocacy currently being undertaken by Consumer Focus and a variety of other bodies.

Citizens Advice advocates use of 0845 numbers by HMRC and DWP agencies. It also advocates 080 helpline providers losing the benefit of calls from mobiles being at no greater cost to them, whilst callers incur no charge.

With this position on advocacy, charging for a “free” service without saying so and failing to give sound advice to its service users so that they may make the appropriate choice to call its alternative (mobile only) number, the suitability of Citizens Advice to take on the role that it has been granted by the government must be called into question.

David Hickson said:

"I have long been involved with Citizens Advice, myself advising it on ways that it could dig itself out of a terrible problem it had got into with the funding of its telephone service. As a strong supporter of Citizens Advice, I am deeply disappointed at the decision that has now been put into effect.

"I can understand some of the reasons, however it cannot be acceptable for Citizens Advice to behave in this underhand way. The danger of reputational damage in the light of the forthcoming larger role for the charity means that this foolish decision must be urgently reviewed.

"To charge for advice services is contrary to the stated Principles of Citizens Advice and offensive to the volunteers who make up a sizeable proportion of its workforce. To withhold information and misrepresent the costs incurred is an intolerable breach of what Citizens Advice stands for.

"The advocacy position taken by Citizens Advice is clearly weak and ill considered. I cannot say how far this is influenced by the need to defend its own improper policy on use of telephone numbers, but one must fear that it feels unable to expect others to achieve higher standards than those which it sets for itself."

The information worth up to 41p per listen

Click to hear the announcement that is played to those who pay up to 41p to call 08444 111 444 from a mobile.

N.B. The information about the cost of calling from a landline is false. All landline callers pay more than 5p per minute to call the 0844 number. 5p per minute is the (VAT inclusive) value of the subsidy provided to Citizens Advice through its telephone company. Originating telephone companies do take some revenue for themselves from these calls, whether from landlines, mobiles or payphones.

Additional Information

For comment from SayNoTo0870 – please contact Dave Lindsay
The service is announced on this web page.
An explanation of why a non-geographic (e.g. 03) number is required for the service is given here.
Any "review of the telecommunications market" which failed to identify that 03 numbers provide exactly the same facilties for "systems that increase our capacity for answering calls", whilst being charged at no more than the cost of call to a geographic number for ALL people, would be unworthy of a body with the capacity to represent the consumer interest. It is for Citizens Advice to say whether it misunderstands or is deliberately withholding relevant information.
(It is true that SOME people incur a penalty charge for calling geographic numbers outside the agreed terms of their package which is greater than the premium charge incurred when calling 0844 numbers. This is however totally irrelevant to the point at issue and should not be conflated with it.
I do not believe that Citizens Advice would advocate consumers selecting the wrong telephone Call Plan, so as to incur the penalty charges which make 0844 and 0845 calls appear "cheaper" in some cases. If it did, then this could provide a reason for "Why we use 0844/ 0845 numbers) ". Again, it is for Citizens Advice to explain.
An article on Page 10 of this CAB newsletter explains that the AdviceLine service is funded by a publicly owned body – RBS. It may be argued that a 0844 number has had to be used because the funding offered by RBS was insufficient to avoid clients having to also contribute towards the cost of the service. RBS may care to comment on this point.
The Communications Consumer Panel, which Citizens Advice will be replacing in the role of Consumer Advocacy on telecommunications issues, has no stated position on the issue of expensive telephone numbers. It neither engaged in nor mentioned the recent extensive Ofcom consultation on this topic in its publications. To the CCP, this is not an issue of "current consumer concern"!

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