Mobile phone 'bill shock' to be tackled by Ofcom

Nokia Lumia smartphone Ofcom wants global limits on bills to stop "bill-shock"

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UK mobile phone companies have been told to let their contract customers restrict how much they spend, to avoid unexpectedly high bills.

The regulator Ofcom says the measures are needed to stop so-called "bill shock".

It says its research shows that 1.4 million customers with mobile phone contracts have been hit by surprisingly large bills in the past six months.

Ofcom says if the firms do not agree, it may force them to protect customers.

"Ofcom believes mobile providers can do more to help customers control the amount they spend on their mobile phones," the regulator said.

"Ofcom has written to the mobile providers calling on them to do more to develop and promote 'opt-in' measures, such as tariffs that allow consumers to set their own financial caps or receive alerts about usage."

The move was welcomed by the consumers' association Which?.

"Ofcom's report confirms what consumers have been telling us for years - that bill shock is a big problem," it said.

"We want clearer information for customers from the phone companies about what they charge for services in the UK and abroad, plus greater protection for consumers from hefty data charges."

Low awareness

Ofcom's announcement comes after a review of the problem of bill-shock.

This particularly affects people who use their phones abroad and come back from their travels to find they have racked up a huge bill.

The regulator said the main causes of excessive bills were:

  • downloading data outside the European Union (EU), but also in the UK if a customer did not realise how intensively they were using their phone.
  • making voice calls in the UK above the monthly allowance, or calling numbers not covered by it.
  • lost or stolen phones. Ofcom said the cost to individuals could be high though not many people were in fact affected.

"[We] found that consumers have low levels of awareness about how to protect themselves and can find it difficult to find information about data charges from their provider," Ofcom said.

Ofcom says it will ask operators to agree to limits on customers' bills if their phones are stolen.

It also wants UK operators to agree to extend world-wide the existing European cut-off limits on phones when users are "roaming" abroad.

At the moment, European regulations force all operators to cap a user's bill at 50 euros a month when roaming in the EU.

The customers must also be sent an alert when they get to within 80% and then 100% of that spending limit.

The regulator said it would use its powers to force the mobile operators to act if they did not co-operate.

Ernest Doku at price comparison service uSwitch.com, said: "Consumers are still being stung with unexpected high charges."

"A survey of mobile phone users carried out by us revealed that only a fifth of Brits check how much they'll be charged for using their phones abroad before they go, and four in ten have no idea of the costs."

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