Bill shock knows no boundaries

If your credit card is stolen, you’re generally not responsible for errant charges even if they took place prior to when you reported your card missing. However, that courtesy doesn’t appear to extend to mobile phones, as several Vodafone customers recently learned the hard way.

Several tourists who had traveled from the UK to Barcelona, Spain this past summer fell victim to a professional gang of pickpockets, who then proceeded to immediately and deliberately dial premium rate numbers using the conferencing feature and pile up thousands of pounds in charges. A primary school teacher from Wales was slapped with £15,000 of charges in an extreme case of bill shock after his phone was stolen. Interestingly, Vodafone only cut off the account after that threshold of charges was reached. Does the carrier think anything less than that is not considered out of the ordinary?

One of the teacher’s traveling companions was on the hook for more than £4,000 after his phone was stolen in much the same manner. Yet another victim had her phone stolen by a cyclist while in Barcelona and received a bill for almost £6,000.

In each of the three cases, the victims said they contacted Vodafone using payphones or their online accounts to report their stolen phones, but in each instance Vodafone either claimed to never have heard from them or conveniently forgot the reports, leading to each customer receiving the outrageous bills when back home.

And they are far from alone. A quick Google search finds numerous cases of mobile phone thefts in Barcelona, but of course these incidents can and do happen anywhere. What’s surprising is Vodafone’s reaction to the charges, which instead of writing them off as a credit card company would do, is insisting that customers pay up.

The teacher from Wales was worried that his inability to pay his bill would ruin his credit and jeopardize his chances of qualifying for a home mortgage, prompting him to seek legal recourse. A lawyer, who took on the case pro bono, was able to get Vodafone to back off collecting from the teacher and his traveling companion.

An interesting detail of this and similar cases is that Vodafone – or any mobile operator – would not have to pay the entity offering the premium services in a case when there is fraud clearly at work. So Vodafone was not on the hook for anything yet chose to threaten the good credit of its own customers by insisting they pay up.

There’s actually been a movement in the UK to have credit card style caps placed on mobile phone bills, with regulator Ofcom promising for the past couple of years to make headway on the issue to no avail.

Adding insult to injury, Vodafone, along with fellow UK mobile operators T-Mobile and O2 are feeling the heat for inconsistent policies regarding when they offer compensation to customers for lost cell signals, with the burden on customers to prove that they lost their signal a certain number of times within a 24-hour period to make a claim.

These recent examples don’t instill much confidence that mobile operators have changed their practices regarding bill shock. If regulators like Ofcom would step up their game and mandate bill caps, that would go a long way to increasing customer satisfaction and confidence.

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Anita Karve
About Anita Karve 37 Articles
Anita is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering just about everything in the technology space with a focus on computer networking and telecommunications. She was managing editor of Billing & OSS World magazine and technology editor at Network magazine and most recently was in charge of newsletter coverage at TM Forum.

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