Phone cost confusion putting off callers, Ofcom says

Telephones The system of telephone numbers has evolved as technology has advanced

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Some people are "put off" making important calls because of confusion over the amount they will be charged, according to the telecoms regulator.

Ofcom is planning a change in the system of "non-geographic" numbers, which start with 03, 08 or 09.

Markham Sivak, who is leading the review, said research had found some phone users believed costs were higher and so decided not to make vital calls.

But the new rules will take more than a year to implement.

The system of phone number prefixes has built up over the years as the technology has advanced.

Ever since numbers moved from solely simple area codes, a whole host of new numbers and charging structures has evolved.

These range from UK-wide numbers used by charities and not-for-profit organisations, to premium rate lines - offering horoscope readings or chat lines - which can cost as much as £2.60 a minute.

An Ofcom guide to the different charges runs to three pages, prompting the regulator to come up with a simplification plan.

"We have a complicated system. It is time to tidy it all up at once, not to make lots of little changes," said Mr Sivak.

Public pressure

At present, 0800 and 0808 calls are free from landlines but are often charged when the calls are made on mobiles. Under the plans all of these "freephone" calls will actually be free.

Phone number prefixes

  • 030: Used by charities and not-for-profit organisations and cost the same as geographic 01 or 02 calls
  • 08: Numbers used by businesses for sales, inquiry or customer service lines
  • 09: Premium rate numbers used for many competitions or recorded information. These are the most expensive

Other phone numbers starting with 08 have allowed businesses or helplines to take calls and divert them to call centres in different parts of the UK, or even internationally.

However, the charging structure can be complicated - with costs often overestimated by consumers, according to Mr Sivak.

For example, some calls that start with 087 include a call set-up fee, whereas some starting with 084 do not. Meanwhile, some 0845 and 0870 numbers are included in packages - making them free at certain times of day - whereas 0844 or 0871 numbers are generally not included.

The complexity has led to pressure - from the regulator, the public and MPs - on key organisations to switch their numbers to one with a slightly cheaper 03 prefix, mainly because these are free in call packages.

HM Revenue and Customs is planning to move all its helplines, such as the self-assessment tax line, to 03 numbers by the end of the summer.

One pressure group has also been running a campaign, highlighting alternative geographic numbers to those fed up with calling 08 numbers.

Charges split

The key to these chargeable 08 numbers or premium rate 09 numbers is that some of the fee goes to the telephone company and some to the business that is providing the service.

Telephone keypad The changes aim to make it clearer where the cost of the call goes

This helps pay for the cost of the service, such as bus or train timetables, but it also means a profit can be made from these calls.

Some 93% of people asked in a survey by market research company Consumer Intelligence said they thought it was unfair that companies could make money from such calls.

Under Ofcom's proposals, the charges will be split into two sections so consumers know what they are paying and where the money is going.

Callers will be told: "This call will cost x pence per minute, plus your standard access charge."

The access charge is a fixed fee that will go to the telephone company. The service charge, quoted in pence per minute, goes to the company being called.

Consultation on the plans ends on 28 May and the regulator hopes the new system will be in place by the start of 2015.

The Federation of Small Businesses wants the changes to be made efficiently, and in one go.

"If it is one good overhaul, we would welcome that, but it never seems to be that way. It may be another five years, or it could be 10 years, but change keeps happening," said Mike Cherry, the FSB's national policy chairman.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for mobile operator O2 said: "Currently, even though we levy retail charges for calls to 0800 numbers, O2 customers can call many of these numbers for free. These include Childline, Crimestoppers and 0800 Reverse.

"In the future, Ofcom proposes that service providers make adequate payments to mobile operators to cover the cost of originating calls to 080 numbers. We support this approach. There are costs associated with delivering mobile phone calls to 0800 services and these need to be recovered, somehow."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Hey, people! Moaning about rubbish service TO EACH OTHER never solved anything. Vote with your feet, take your business elsewhere, complain directly to the people with the rubbish service, talk to your local MP, anything is better than venting on HYS. Do you think anyone from Offcom is ever going to read these rants?

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Do you trust businesses not to find a way round the regulation? Fining companies isn't the answer, fining the directors is!

    And when are we changing the laws to make the big companies pay the same as the little independents? No, hasn't crossed a politicians mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    101. ThreeEdgedSword

    Your number isn't 0207 xxx or 0208 xxx. it is 020 xxxx xxxx. The STD (remember them) dialing code is 020 - the local number is "1234 5678"

    People in Nottingham have a similar problem. So many business group their number "01159" followed by 6 digits, where as their actual number is 0115, followed by 7 digits!

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    What's all the fuss about ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Ronseal don't do OF''s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    HMRC are outrageous to reach by telephone... calls easily take over half an hour before you even get to someone who maybe can help & then they are obstructive and abusive, and hang up if you do not kow-tow to their every whim.

    Or maybe it was because I was trying to claim back an overpayment of tax... if I owed them it maybe would have gone easier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    If there ever was an illustration of a completely pointless, benign, ineffective, feckless, dithering, bloated regulator then OFCOM is that.

    The UK population have endured a regular stream of telecomms rip-offs, scams and government backed "nice little earners" and OFCOM have stood silent, watched and taken its rather lucrative fee.

    Sub-contract our regulatory needs to impartial foreign teams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    25 - " had to call my bank ... It took about 20 minutes on the phone being passed around speak to someone who could help and they did not offer to refund the phone call charges." Always complain and ask for compensation to cover the cost of the calls and the inconvenience caused - they will generally offer more than the cost of the call.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    85. RDG
    "Ofcom should have addressed this issue several years ago, but it chose to ignore it.
    Why do we have to put up with Government Regulators that are not fit for purpose?"

    We need an Office of Regulators of Regulators
    (Just like we need an independent IPCC complaints commissioner!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    As someone who started with an 01- number, went on to an 020 number and THEN an 0207/8 number when it was suddenly figured out that there were too many people for just 020, I find this rather amusingly ironic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    People wanted these utilities privatised, what you end up is companies who grab a quick profit and have no ethics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    All companies using 08*** numbers should have to provide an alternative 01/02/03 number as these are included in call bundles from both landline and mobile.The easiest way I find is to use the number they provide for calling from abroad that invariably gets straight through.
    Also use saynoto0870 that's very useful

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Phone prefixes can be annoying elsewhere too. Germany introduced, 2004, extensions to premium numbers to show cost eg. 0191-1 is €0.62 per min. It's not great but not as bad as UK. Cheap international is easier.
    I notice UK votes with its corporate press so it's well behind other countries on informing and protecting the consumer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I will never call a company that uses a profit-making phone number, on principle.

    Also, why should they make a profit, when I wish to complain about how useless they are?

    24.Mon Mome
    "...Skype is free"

    No, it isn't free.
    Only Skype-to-Skype calls are free.
    All other calls cost money, including phoning a landline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Ofcom - the poverbial dead sheep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    What many people do not realise is that when a business buys an "08" number they are buying a revenue stream, as they make a rake off from your call to them.

    So when the recorded message is banging on about "call are recorded etc etc" the delay in connecting you is both costing you, and making money for them!

    Use "" or call the sales freecall number. Never us "08"

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    A couple of weeks ago I had to call Southwest Water to report a water outage......37 minutes later the 'phone was answered! Thankfully it was an 0800 number, else it would have cost me a fortune to listen to 37 minutes of Mozart.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Can I have #1

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Why only allow us to comment on the none issues?
    Of course the telephone numbers need sorting...
    My phone bill can easily go up £4 just from one phone call to HSBC for something that goes wrong with my account.

    Let us comment on real issues, or all issues like most other news sites!

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    I'd like to see the non-geographic numbers simplified for mobiles. That is every number, except 09 premium rate, should count as a normal call and be included in your minutes. All calls per-minute, no set-up or connection charges.

    Really, 0800 should be free for everyone, including from mobiles.

    Also, all government calls should be free, including HMRC, NHS Direct, hospitals, GPs surgeries, etc.


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