Data charges: Rachel Howkins, 70, was hit by a £10,000 phone bill
A retired businesswoman is battling a £10,000 bill for a mobile phone she barely uses.
Rachel Howkins, 70, was hit by the enormous charge after provider Unicom claimed she had used more than 17 gigabytes of data — which is enough to watch around nine films — in one afternoon.
Unicom claims the data charges were incurred between midday and 8pm in February 2018, while she was at home.
At that time, Rachel believes she was in the house with her partner, Jim, but insists she certainly wasn’t downloading vast quantities of data.
The bill was so large because she had exceeded her normal monthly data allowance of 1 gb, so had to pay punitive extra charges.
But Rachel, from Haslemere, Surrey, says the firm refuses to explain how she could have used so much data in such a short time.
According to experts, it’s almost impossible for one mobile phone to eat up so much data so quickly.
‘I hardly use the data on my phone and often keep it switched off when I’m at home,’ says Rachel. ‘It’s really just for emergencies, such as if my car breaks down.
I’m not like these youngsters who are always using their phones even as they’re walking down the street. I used just 0.4 gb data last month.
‘To say I’ve been in floods of tears would be an understatement. How can they tell me I owe £10,000 and not say what for?’
Rachel signed up to Unicom after it called her out of the blue when she was running a small secretarial business from home. It’s a specialist provider of broadband and phone services to small businesses.
Based in Manchester, the firm says it has 50,000 small business customers. Its parent company, Verastar, also from Manchester, claims in its accounts to have 246,000 customers.
In 2015, Unicom was fined £200,000 by the telecoms watchdog for mis-selling landline telephone services. Ofcom ruled that the firm had failed to make its hefty early termination charges clear to customers.
Rachel’s bill was so large because she had exceeded her normal monthly data allowance of 1 gb, so had to pay punitive extra charges
Meanwhile, disgruntled former customers have set up a website dedicated to complaints about the firm (unicom-complaints.co.uk).
Rachel says she only ever used her phone for the odd call and to check her emails. In the past year, her average monthly bill for broadband, two landlines and her mobile phone has been £124.99. Her highest was £135.14.
She never lends it to friends or family and has never downloaded television or watched films on it.
However, in February she was sent a text message by Unicom saying that she had used up almost the whole 1 GB data allowance on her mobile phone.
She would have received this on the day she exceeded her limit.
Rachel didn’t spot the message for a few days, but called Unicom and was told she could upgrade her deal to 3GB of data for an extra £6 a month, to which she agreed.
A few weeks later, her February bill arrived. It said she owed £10,207.36, made up of her landline and broadband costs, VAT, plus a huge £8,457.20 in mobile charges. When Rachel queried this with Unicom, the firm said that she had used up around 17.5 GB.
In its contract, Unicom states that customers who exceed their allowance will be charged 50p per megabyte, around £512 per GB.
When Rachel challenged the bill, Unicom offered to reduce it by 50 per cent, and later 60 per cent. It also offered her a payment plan of £337.72 a month on top of her usual bill.
When you use the internet on your mobile phone, your provider can see how the data is being used — whether it’s streaming videos or using apps such as Facebook. It cannot see exactly what you are doing, but it should be able to tell you roughly how you built up charges.
However, when Rachel asked Unicom for a breakdown of her bill, the firm refused. It told her that the only option was to take her complaint to the Communications Ombudsman.
In its provisional ruling in May, the Ombudsman said Rachel should pay the full bill as per the contract’s terms and conditions.
In the meantime, Unicom passed Rachel’s details to debt collectors. In June, she received a letter saying they were preparing papers for court proceedings.
After Rachel asked the Ombudsman to look at her complaint again, it changed its mind and last week said she should pay only £1,100 plus VAT.
But it had still not been able to get Unicom to explain how Rachel had accrued the charges. She is now reporting the firm to Ofcom.
Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at comparison site uSwitch, says he cannot understand how someone could use more than 17GB of data in eight hours.
‘Even if you watched or downloaded films back-to-back over this time period, you wouldn’t get through this much data. This usage is clearly out of character and I think it’s highly unlikely she used it. There’s a moral obligation on firms to be transparent and fair, but Unicom is being obstructive.’
A Unicom spokesman says: ‘Although we do not market products for personal use, we do allow customers to keep contracts in place if they retire, as was the case with Mrs Howkins.
‘Our contract is clear that she is responsible for her usage and is liable for data charges. As a gesture of goodwill, we are substantially reducing the charges.
‘We are reliant on our Mobile Virtual Network Enabler, Transatel, for the breakdown of customer usage and, whilst they insist that the data was used, they have been unable to either provide this information themselves or procure it from BT/EE, the ultimate network provider.’