Does Vodafone think we live in the age of the carrier pigeons?

Posted on Wednesday 12th Nov 2014

In June 2003 I wrote about Ben Jemison, a 29-year-old facing a £1,000 bill after his phone was stolen in, guess where, Barcelona. The banks, he argued, block cards when they see suspicious activity, and cap a customer’s liability to fraud at just £50, so why can’t the mobile phone companies do the same? Yet for the past decade Vodafone and the other mobile giants have successfully fought the imposition of any cap, while the spineless regulators, first Oftel and now Ofcom, have consistently failed to protect consumers.

Back in 2003 the networks told me it can take up to 72 hours for them to be billed by a foreign telecom operator and that they have to pass this on to the customer. Even then that sounded implausible and today it is laughable. Are we to assume that the likes of Vodafone and Telefonica communicate with each other via carrier pigeon?

Another entirely implausible claim by the networks is that they don’t have the technology to monitor suspicious activity and cut off the thieves. Does anybody really believe that? Osian Rhys Edwards’s phone was used to make an astonishing 1,100 calls in the space of 24 hours without, supposedly, Vodafone noticing anything.

Capping bills is not currently possible, argue the networks. Yet probably every minute of the day a network blocks a phone user with a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) phone that hits its call credit limit. If the thieves who stole the mobiles belonging to Rhys Edwards or Roberts tried calling their premium rate lines on a PAYG contract you can be sure Vodafone would have cut it off long before the bill hit £15,000. Interestingly, Tesco Mobile lets customers set bill limits on their contract phones, which blows the whistle on what the other networks are saying.

The angriest critics claim there is almost a criminal conspiracy, with the mobile networks refusing to cap bills as they benefit from the fraudulent behaviour. This is obviously not true, yet they must make a profit when a thief runs up a hideously high bill. What beggars belief is that they then merrily add 20% VAT to the bill - more than £2,000 in Osian’s case.

The truth is that a technological solution is entirely achievable, but the networks argue it is too expensive, or unnecessary “red tape”, preferring instead to pass the bill on to victims. They barely bother to inform customers of protective measures such as sim-locking (see opposite). The EU has shown far more backbone, forcing the networks to cap data roaming bills across the continent. Ofcom should call the networks’ bluff. It could take up Rhys Edwards’s case, and fund a court challenge against Vodafone to obtain a definitive court ruling.

Meanwhile, beware of heading to Barcelona – the pickpocket capital of the world. Citizens Advice tells us that 20 of 69 phone theft cases it examined last year were from there, and involved excessive bills. I called a tourist official and he told me it wasn’t really a problem. With answers like that, he could get a job at Vodafone.

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