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.
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.)
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.|