When Kate Harrison’s father was in hospital, she started going through his bills and bank statements to make sure all were in order. She was shocked to discover he had been paying Sky a massive £179 a month – a fifth of his pension income.
The huge bill was made up of £109 for his TV package and £70 for “CLI charges”, a levy she knew nothing about. And, after investigating, she found he had been paying that fee for four years – amounting to more than £3,000. It was an enormous sum for 81-year-old Mike, which contributed to him going into debt to his credit card company.
The charges began when Mike was a carer for his wife Barbara, who had dementia. Since she dealt with a lot of the household outgoings and received bills online, he had little knowledge of what he was expected to pay for services such as TV. Even after she died in 2018, the statements continued to go to her email address.
“He had no idea that £179 was outrageous, and thought that was just what you had to pay. He was not getting any kind of statement and he was not going to challenge it,” explains Kate.
She also says that her father was too preoccupied at the time, caring for his wife, to focus on bills.
When she challenged Sky initially, she says the call handler told her it would only refund £220, and suggested it was her responsibility to monitor her dad’s bills.
After she took to social media, Sky apologised and handed the money back. But the case illustrates the pitfalls of online billing, particularly where vulnerable customers are involved.
When Sky customers have a number of its boxes in their home, each one is separately subscribed to the customer’s full package, called Sky Multiscreen. But you don’t have to pay the full subscription for each box – a discount is applied.
However, to ensure each box is being used in the right location, Sky insists it is connected to the internet or a telephone line to monitor usage. If not, call line identification (CLI) charges apply. This is a way for the company to take back the discounts if it cannot see that all the boxes are being used by one household.
The measures are meant to stop people selling the additional box, using it in another location, or taking it to another property when they are away from home.
In this case, four years of charges were levied even though Mike’s two boxes remained in his house in Liverpool. The second box he had was disconnected at some point in 2017.
Notifications of the charges were sent in 2017 and 2018 to Barbara at a time when she was unable to deal with them. The charges continued unnoticed for four years, with the only detailed bills from Sky going to her inbox.
“Sky’s system should be telling it that a person has not responded, or even read, any emails for years, and a letter should be triggered to remind them why they’re being charged so much,” says Kate.
“My parents had been customers for 14 years with an out-of-date box that can’t even connect to wireless internet.”
She acknowledges that her father could have queried the bills, but he did not know what was an appropriate amount and, at the time the charges started, was looking after his dying wife.
The company has agreed to pay back £3,104.50 to cover them, but she feels some compensation should be paid for “neglectful communication”.
Sky subsequently agreed to reduce his monthly bills.
In a statement to the Observer, Sky said the CLI charges are “a legitimate security measure so we can check Sky boxes are being used in the correct home by the customers they’re meant for”.
It added: “These charges end when the box is connected to the internet or telephone line and the location is verified. When a box isn’t connected, customers are informed three times before the charges start, and we continue to regularly remind customers that the charges are being applied until the box is connected.
“Unfortunately, in this case, we were unable to verify the location of the box from 2017 onwards. Due to circumstances outside of the customer’s control, it was never reconnected. We have apologised, and refunded the charges in full.”
The company has also heavily discounted his TV package for 18 months, which now costs £4 a month, and it is sending paper bills.
Sky refuses to say how many customers get CLI charges, or how much it collects every year from them.
Ofcom, the communications regulator, says all providers must have policies in place to make sure vulnerable customers are treated fairly.
“People’s circumstances can change at any point, and we expect providers to understand and identify the characteristics and needs of vulnerable customers, and make sure they get the support,” it adds. “Any customer who doesn’t think they’ve been treated fairly should complain to their provider in the first instance. If you’re unhappy with the outcome, you can take the complaint to an independent ombudsman who will look at the case and make a judgment on it.”
In the case of Sky, the independent ombudsman is the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (Cisas), which has not responded to a request for comment.
For Kate, the importance of discussing finances with older family members, especially after bereavement, has been highlighted. “Money’s a delicate subject, but I wish we’d talked about it sooner,” she says. “Older, or vulnerable, people aren’t always aware of what charges are fair. Often they are worse off for not being online, or trying to negotiate better deals, as younger customers routinely do.”