A Northern Irish teacher has become the latest victim of criminal gangs in Barcelona who pickpocketed his mobile phone, and then used it to run up a £2,763 bill calling premium-rate numbers through the night.
Sean Burrows* was told by his mobile company, 02, that he will have to pay what he describes as a “life-changing” bill. He is just the latest holidaymaker in the city to fall foul of organised criminals.
Thieves routinely target tourists around the popular Las Ramblas – usually late at night. They pretend to engage the victim in conversation and skilfully take their handset. Within an hour it is used to call expensive premium-rate numbers, which have been set up specially to generate an income.
Back in 2015 Guardian Money featured the case – and a story that sparked worldwide interest – of Welsh teacher Osian Rhys Edwards who was chased for a £15,000 bill run up by a Barcelona pickpocket. His network, Vodafone, insisted he was liable, and only backed down when a barrister took up his case.
Burrows, who wasn’t aware his phone was stolen until about 3am, says he had no way of contacting 02, as he was alone in the city, and it was the middle of the night.
The Tefl teacher says he can’t understand how 02’s systems didn’t spot that anything was amiss, given his monthly bill rarely is above its base price of £6 and the thieves were calling premium-rate numbers.
The bill shows the calls started at 4am and went on until 02 apparently turned the phone off once it had hit £2,763. The minimum call was £9, the highest £41. The thieves used two lines to call at once.
He had travelled back to Valencia, where he was living, by bus and only became aware of what had happened when he spotted an email from 02. “As soon as I saw it I felt sick because for me this is a life-changing amount of money – a sum I can’t possibly pay,” he says. “I had a web chat with 02, pointing out I had been a customer for over 15 years, but it cut no ice. I was told they would cut the bill by £250 as ‘a goodwill gesture’. My wife is about to have a baby, and this is causing untold stress.”
Many readers had assumed that the problem of “bill shock” had gone away. Following a sustained campaign, in particular by Guardian Money, the government strong-armed the phone companies in 2015 to “voluntarily” introduce £100 “liability caps” for customers.
However, there was a major caveat: customers must report the loss to both the network and police “within 24 hours”, something that is not always possible.
Money has long argued consumers should have all bills capped at £100 unless they have actively opted out or agreed to a higher figure – as happens if your bank card is stolen. Once a stolen phone’s bill reaches this limit, it would be automatically cut off. Networks argued it was not possible, yet are able to cut of off prepay phones which run out of credit.
From 1 October providers will be legally obliged to offer bill limits – but only to new customers taking out contracts. The regulator Ofcom has told operators they must not enter into a contract unless the customer has been given an opportunity to specify a bill limit.
Customers with existing contracts are advised to contact their provider and try to put a cap in place – particularly if taking the phone abroad. Some providers, such as Tesco Mobile permit this, but others still won’t. Meanwhile, and happily for Burrows, after Guardian Money’s intervention, 02 has told him he will not be liable for the charges. It blamed the bill on a misunderstanding between a customer service adviser and a member of its fraud team.
“Customers who have their phone lost or stolen need to contact our customer service team as soon as possible – the service is available 24 hours a day,” it says.
*Not his real name