Sky-high charges, but broadband customers trapped in lockdown

Trying to cancel a contract is almost impossible as providers make themselves hard to reach

It’s simple and swift to sign up to a broadband contract. Big coloured buttons beside each online deal invite custom with a few strokes on the keyboard. Exiting a contract is another matter. Hundreds of broadband customers have spent lockdown trapped on escalating tariffs as telecoms companies have become incommunicado to those who want to leave.

When Suzanne Padisetti’s 18-month contract with TalkTalk came to an end, her monthly bill rose from £20 to £29 without warning. Unable to get through to customer services to discuss a new deal, she attempted to terminate. However, she could find no option for cancelling online and, when she tried to call, an automated message informed her that lines were only open for vulnerable customers due to the pandemic. She attempted “live chat” but says she was cut off both times.

“We just cannot find a way to communicate with anybody to start the process of leaving,” she says. “It appears that they are using the pandemic as an excuse to make it so hard for people to leave that they will stay, paying a much higher price than they need to.”

I feel like they are holding us to ransom

Fellow TalkTalk customer, Bella Huang, also faced soaring bills because she was unable to break free. When her broadband contract came to an end, she arranged to switch to a new provider, but was informed that TalkTalk had rejected the move. She, too, was told that phone lines were only open to vulnerable customers and she says her messages via Facebook and Twitter went unanswered.

“I feel like they are holding us to ransom,” she says. “They have said our monthly tariff will rise from £17 to £30 when our fixed-term contract ends, unless we sign up for another 18-month contract. I really don’t want to do this because we’ve had years of poor service, but if they don’t let us switch to another supplier, I don’t have a choice.”

Telecoms companies have closed call centres and restricted remaining phone lines due to the pandemic, but while most allow customers to buy or upgrade a service online, many have failed to provide an online option for those wishing to terminate their contract. Since the price of most broadband contracts rises after the minimum term of 12 to 18 months, unless customers negotiate a new deal, or switch providers, this has left many out of pocket.

A survey by campaign group Which? found that 53% of respondents have struggled to contact their broadband provider since lockdown began and face price hikes of up to 80% when their fixed-term deals expire.

I spent an hour on the phone, but nobody picked up

One respondent, a nurse on a coronavirus ward, said her monthly bill from Virgin Media increased to £50 from £18, but she was told a technician would need to attend to enable her to switch provider and this was not possible due to staffing restrictions. Complaints website Resolver reports a significant increase in the number of complainants unable to contact their provider or exit a contract.

Sarah Taylor* spent a month trying to get hold of Virgin Media after her fixed-term deal ended and she moved house. “I spent an hour on the phone on one occasion, but nobody picked up,” she says. “Meanwhile, my bill keeps going up and up for a service I no longer use. I understand that under the current circumstances there might be fewer people working in call centres, but why, when you can upgrade online, can’t we cancel via the website?”

Customers who switch providers at the end of their fixed-term contracts do not usually have to contact their existing supplier to cancel since the new provider does it for them. However, those transferring from a company, such as Virgin Media, which does not use the national network operated by Openreach, have to sort the cancellation themselves.

Last December, telecoms regulator Ofcom announced proposals to address this by requiring the new provider to manage the transfer between networks, but the pandemic has delayed their implementation. In the meantime, Ofcom states that it should be as straightforward for customers who want to leave a contract as for those signing up, and warns companies from acting as a “disincentive agent” to deter defectors.

“As set out in our fairness commitments, providers should be working to ensure customers can cancel easily, and should seek to offer them different channels to do so,” it says. “The current crisis has caused some delays to customer service lines, mainly due to call centre capacity problems, but we’re now starting to see improvements. We’ll continue to engage with providers, including Virgin Media, and monitor progress.”

Virgin Media, which says it has increased its number of call handlers by 500, told the Observer that it only offers a telephone option for cancellations to allow staff to address potential issues. This is despite a message on its website asking customers to desist from ringing because of call centre closures and long wait times.

Customers who do get through to give the required 30-days’ notice are faced with layers of red tape as different departments question their reasons for leaving, and often follow up calls to tempt them to change their mind. Taylor’s contract was cancelled after intervention from the Observer.

TalkTalk admits it operated a reduced call centre service during lockdown, with some of its international call centres closed due to restrictions imposed by foreign governments, but says customers wishing to cancel could also have used its live chat option or post a question on its community forum. Reviews on Trustpilot, however, suggest widespread problems communicating with the company.

After the Observer flagged up Padisetti’s problem, TalkTalk switched her to a discounted deal and offered to refund the increased tariff she had had to pay when her previous deal ended, plus £50 compensation. It discovered that Huang’s flat number had been wrongly registered on its system, preventing her from switching provider.

“This type of issue is extremely rare and the vast majority of switching requests are completed without delay,” it says. “We will cover the cost of the customer’s last invoice as a goodwill gesture and waive any final bill.” It says it has apologised to both customers, and the apologies have been accepted.

Covid-19 has put unprecedented pressure on telecoms companies, but it should not be used as an excuse to profit from service delays.

Providers want to speak to customers who wish to leave so they can try to dissuade them, but with phone lines overloaded, a cancellation option should have been introduced online.

Adam French, a consumer rights expert at Which? says: “End-of-contract notifications allow customers to know when their contract is coming to an end and when they are likely to face a price increase. But it’s important that there is then a straightforward way to make changes to their contracts that doesn’t leave them worse off if there are delays when contacting their provider.”

* Not her real name

• This article was amended on 16 June 2020. Suzanne Padisetti’s bill rose to £29 per month, not £39 as an earlier version stated; and additional information regarding TalkTalk’s response has been provided.

Contributor

Anna Tims

The GuardianTramp

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