Fight: Rupert Lane had his number taken
Mobile networks are being criticised for blithely selling on the phone numbers of pay-as-you-go customers who do not use their handsets frequently enough.
Though networks are allowed to ‘recycle’ dormant mobile numbers, some customers only discover this practice when they try to use their phone and it does not work.
It often happens to vulnerable customers who only keep a mobile phone for emergencies. There is no duty on networks to refund any credit outstanding on the phone.
Rupert Lane was furious to discover his provider Virgin Mobile recycled his number without him knowing – and without refunding the credit he still had left.
The 82-year-old, who lives in Plymouth, prefers using his landline to make calls but keeps a mobile for emergencies and occasional use. He tried using the mobile recently and when it did not work he visited a local store to ask why.
Only at this stage did staff reveal his number was no longer his own and he was provided with a replacement SIM card.
But since then he has struggled to get back money that was outstanding on his old card. He says it amounts to little more than ‘theft’. Rupert says: ‘I would have expected the company to call or write a letter to warn me. Why does it not contact the customer? It would be common decency to do so.’
He was told the lost credit would be added to his new SIM within two days. When the credit did not materialise, he called Virgin Mobile’s customer service number – for which there is a charge – but was warned of a ten to 20-minute wait on hold. Not wanting to pay for waiting he tried again but with the same result. When he called his local shop, a staff member told him the credit could not be put on his new card. Rupert adds: ‘It is like visiting the bank and withdrawing money from someone else’s account. It would be easy to write this off as only a couple of pounds but it lacks fairness and honesty. It is sharp practice.’
Virgin Media says Rupert’s number was deactivated because it had not been used for a long time. It said it would, after all, add credit to his new number. The company says it only recycles a number if ‘chargeable activity’ has not occurred in the past year.
It adds: ‘Before a number is recycled, customers will be contacted via text message if their number has not been used for chargeable activity within a 90-day period – and again if it remains inactive within 365 days.’
The supply of mobile numbers – all 11 digits long and starting with 07 – is finite and millions of them remain idle.
To help tackle the shortage, mobile networks are allowed to ‘suspend’ inactive numbers – while still allowing emergency 999 calls.
During the suspension period customers might be able to reactivate the number by contacting their provider.
If it remains unused, networks can later sell the number on to new customers – known as ‘recycling’.
But some existing customers say they did not receive prior notice before their number was sold on.
Ernest Doku, mobile expert at comparison website uSwitch, says: ‘This issue often affects vulnerable customers who might only have a mobile for peace of mind. At the very least providers should look to refund any lost credit to impacted consumers and notify them with a text message beforehand.’
Hands free: People who use their mobile only sporadically are advised by Ofcom to use it ‘at least once every few months’
How often people need to use their phones to keep hold of their number depends on which network they use.
Doku adds: ‘As it stands, rules governing how long a line remains active are loose and vary between providers – from 70 days to more than six months.’
People who use their mobile only sporadically are advised by communications regulator Ofcom to use it ‘at least once every few months’ so as to keep their number.
They should also ask their provider about what is valid activity – for example, sending a text or making a phone call. Calling an automated number to check a credit balance is unlikely to be enough.
Ofcom says: ‘There are good reasons why unused phone numbers are recycled, but it is important customers are fairly treated. We expect providers’ terms and conditions to strike a fair balance.
‘They should ensure numbers are not recycled too early and that customers get fair warning about the need to use their phones before any credit is lost.’
But there is no pressure on phone companies to refund any credit customers have paid for.
Ofcom adds: ‘Providers have different policies when it comes to refunding unused credit. Customers who wish to challenge their provider about a refund should contact its customer services department and follow the formal complaints procedure.
‘If they remain dissatisfied, they can escalate their complaint to a dispute resolution service.’
Customers can refer their case – for free – to either the Communications Ombudsman or Cisas (Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme).
Ask your network which one it uses. To contact the Communications Ombudsman, visit ombudsman-services.org/communications or call 0330 440 1614. To contact Cisas visit cedr.com/consumer/cisas or call 0207 520 3814.