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Stolen mobiles still causing shock bills, says watchdog

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Stolen mobiles are still causing victims "shock bills", in spite of government promises to cap call charges, Citizens Advice has said.

The watchdog said consumers have faced charges of up to £23,000 each, after thieves used their phones.

A year ago the culture secretary, then Maria Miller, promised that such charges would be capped at £50 by the Spring of 2014.

The government said it was waiting for the industry to agree the details.

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Media captionMattia Busuttil, faced a huge bill from Vodafone after his phone was stolen

Citizens Advice claimed as many as 160,000 people a year are hit by high call charges, following the theft of a mobile phone or a SIM card.

Thieves often use them to call premium-rate or foreign destinations.

Many consumers have reported being charged several thousand pounds as a result, although the regulator, Ofcom, says the average bill is £65.

Incentives

In one recent case, a teacher from North Wales was sent a bill for £15,000, despite reporting the theft immediately.

"The injustice of shock bills for phone crime victims must end," said Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice.

She wants the £50 cap introduced as soon as possible, in line with caps on stolen credit and debit cards.

Natalie Doughty from Newport, Wales, told the BBC she had received a bill for £1,000 after her phone was stolen while she was abroad. She said her mobile phone operator EE was "not at all helpful and have passed the debt onto a third party to collect".

She added that on top of paying back the bill, she paid £400 to cancel the contract with EE.

In response to Citizens Advice, the government said a deal had been reached with the phone companies in principle, but the final details still had to be worked out.

It said Ed Vaizey, a minister at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), was hoping to have a meeting with the industry soon, to get the cap implemented.

The mobile operators said discussions with the government, the regulator and the manufacturers were ongoing.

But one operator said it was concerned that a cap could mean some consumers not bothering to report a stolen phone.

"It's important that there remains an incentive to report a lost phone to prevent fraud, as we do not want to create an environment where it is even more attractive for criminals to focus on mobile phone theft," said a Vodafone spokeswoman.

Spanish hotspot

The regulator, Ofcom, is also concerned about the issue.

"Our evidence shows that while the proportion of consumers affected is low, the level of financial harm in individual cases can be substantial," said an Ofcom spokesperson.

At the moment, consumers are not liable for the cost of phone calls once they have reported a loss to their provider.

But Citizens Advice said phone companies could do more to detect stolen phones, by monitoring calls to high-cost numbers.

The advice being offered to consumers is:

  • Put a passcode on your phone and on your SIM card
  • Ask your provider to block calls to premium-rate or international numbers
  • Note down a contact number for your provider, in case you need to get in touch
  • Report your stolen phone to the network as soon as possible
  • Report thefts to the Police
  • If you are charged for unauthorised calls, negotiate with the provider to reduce the bill

Citizens Advice said that of the cases it had dealt with this year, more than a third involved phones stolen in Spain.

And most of the phones stolen in Spain were taken in the popular destination of Barcelona.


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