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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Watchdog investigates mobile phone contracts for serving soldiers

Watchdog has discovered big discrepancies in the way some mobile phone companies treat soldiers who want to suspend their phone contracts before being sent to Afghanistan.

Soldiers can be deployed to Afghanistan for up to six months but are banned from using their own mobile phones there for security reasons. They are allowed to use army satellite phones to call home for up to thirty minutes a week, so many soldiers look to suspend their own mobile contracts to save money.

But forces sweetheart and patron of the British Forces Foundation, Katherine Jenkins, has investigated the issue for Watchdog and found that some operators aren't doing enough to help soldiers on the front line.

Katherine met one woman whose partner had to carry on paying while he was away on service.

Beth Simmons' partner, who is in the Household Cavalry, flew out to Afghanistan in September last year. He called O2 to suspend his £45 a month phone contract before he left and was told he'd need a signed letter on headed paper from his commanding officer. His commanding officer didn't have time to write the letter so Beth and her partner had to carry on paying every month.

"It was just something that shouldn’t have been an issue, it just wasn't fair," Beth told Katherine.

Watchdog researchers posing as partners of serving soldiers tested nine of the UK's biggest mobile phone companies to investigate which would allow soldiers to suspend their contracts.

Orange came out top, allowing contracts to be suspended without condition or penalty. T Mobile demanded a £3 a month retention fee, while Vodafone and 3 said they would only suspend contracts if soldiers sent in proof of employment by the army.

Four of the nine companies told our researchers there would be no way they could suspend contracts. They were: Virgin Mobile; BT Mobile; Tesco Mobile; and Talk Mobile.

O2, however, demanded more. In the majority of Watchdog's calls their call centre staff asked for soldiers to send them confidential deployment papers giving dates and locations of deployment. This could be a security risk, especially if the papers fell into the wrong hands.

Katherine gathered together a group of women whose partners are in the armed forces and asked them to make the same calls. They found almost the same thing.

They were particularly shocked when they heard about O2 asking Watchdog's undercover researchers for deployment papers.

"If they were to send in information like that, they would be in serious trouble," said Anisha Lusi, whose partner serves in the Royal Engineers.

So shouldn't mobile phone companies be doing more to make life easier for soldiers serving overseas?

Col Stuart Tootal, former commander of 3 Para thinks so. He told Watchdog: "Given the risk that they're taking in the service of their country it seems only reasonable that they shouldn't be penalised by a contract that they've taken out."

Watchdog results

Following Watchdog's investigation the programme contacted the mobile companies to inform them of its findings. They all now say they will temporarily suspend contracts without charge.

In addition, BT apologised and said that their call centre staff gave Watchdog researchers the wrong information and that they will be "reminding our advisors of our policy in such cases." They say that they are happy to consider all individual cases on their merits.

It's a change in policy for T Mobile, Tesco Mobile and Talk Mobile. They now say they will temporarily suspend contracts without charge or refund soldiers for the period they've been away.

Virgin say they will look at it on a case by case basis but are "looking at formalising a policy to make this process easier."

O2 say they have "lifted the requirement to provide proof of service for requests to suspend contracts for a period up to six months." They have also said they'll credit Beth Simmons' partner for the time he was away.

However, Talk Mobile, T Mobile, Three and Vodafone all told Watchdog that they will still require proof of employment by the armed forces.

The results will be shown on Watchdog on 6 May at 8pm on BBC One.


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