High Cost Helpline Rip-Off

Posted on: 29 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Organisations are exploiting customer service phonelines to make money out of those needing help.

In a report published on 29th May 2008, Which? names and shames companies and government agencies that use expensive phone helplines to make money at the expense of consumers.

More than 30 organisations are named in Which?'s 'hall of shame', including Tiscali, British Gas and Barclays, and government agencies TV Licensing and the DVLA. They all use higher-charging 0871, 0870, 0844 or 0845 numbers for customer service or technical support lines.

Organisations that use these numbers can share the revenue from calls with the phone service provider. That means that the longer a customer stays on the line, the more the organisation earns. 

Ofcom introduced 03 numbers last year, which cost the same as calling a geographic (01 or 02) number, and it plans to stop organisations making money from 0870 numbers. But none of the organisations checked by Which? had switched to 03, and some have simply switched from 0870 to other high cost numbers.

Which? called customer helplines at broadband and utility companies and government agencies, to find out how long callers are kept waiting to speak to someone. British Gas, AOL and DVLA kept people hanging on longest, with average waiting times of around three minutes. One call to AOL was held for over 15 minutes, at a cost of 75p from a BT landline.

The DVLA made £3.4 million from its 0870 number in the last financial year. It says it plans to switch to a cheaper number but it hasn’t said when. Which? wants all companies to switch their helplines and technical support from expensive numbers to cheaper 03, 0800 or geographic numbers.

A ten minute call from a BT landline to a regular geographic number, such as 01, 02 or the new 03 code, costs 40p at most. Yet the same call can cost up to £1 to 0870 or 0871 number, 60p for an 0845 number, and 50p for an 0844 number. Nikon and Tiscali have switched from 0870 to 0871 numbers, which are just as expensive to call.

As Neil Fowler, Editor, Which? magazine, says, "Why should you pay for the privilege of making a complaint or getting a problem fixed? It's unacceptable that companies and government agencies can make big money from people calling helplines. Check if there's a cheaper phone number or ask the company to refund the call cost - it's the least they can do if you're calling about a faulty product or bad service."

In April 2008 Which? telephoned customer service departments in eight broadband companies, five utility companies and five government agencies which use revenue sharing numbers. Between nine and 13 calls were made to each company, calls were spread over at least two different days and were made between 11:30am and 2:30pm to reflect when most people would be likely to make these types of calls. Calls were not made over the weekend or on Mondays because Mondays were perceived to be busier days due to problems over the weekend.

Researchers timed how long they were on the telephone before they were able to get through to a person. Average waiting times to speak to someone were: AOL 3 minutes 4 seconds; DVLA 3 minutes 16 seconds; British Gas 2 minutes 50 seconds.

Hall Of Shame

Organisations that have expensive customer lines:

0871: Admiral Insurance, Bell Insurance, Diamond Insurance, Elephant Insurance, Nikon, Tiscali

0870: Apple (tech support) (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Carphone Warehouse/Talk Talk, DVLA, Gladiator Insurance, Lexmark, Philips (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Sony, Zanussi-Electrolux

0844: AOL, Orange, Panasonic (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Sky (free for Sky Talk customers from July), TV Licensing

0845: Barclays, British Gas, Consumer Direct, Direct Line, Eon, Green Flag, Halifax, LloydsTSB, Miele, Npower, Philips (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Scottish and Southern Energy (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Scottish Power, TV Licensing, Virgin Media

Roll Of Honour

Organisations that have cheaper customer lines:

0800: Apple (helpline) (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), BT, Canon, Churchill (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Dyson, Norwich Union Direct, RAC, Scottish and Southern Energy

03: Passport Office (from August)

01/02: Panasonic (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Philips (has both normal and higher-rate numbers), Toshiba

Web Links

Which? consumer association: www.which.co.uk

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