EE has been hit with a £2.7m fine from Ofcom for overcharging customers who called the company’s customer service number from the EU.
The error, caused by the network erroneously informing its third party billing system provider, Tüv Süv BABT to recognise the first digit in their ‘150’ customer service number as the US code, and were therefore charged for calling the US.
This caused the charge per minute to be £1.20 rather than 19p between 1 July 2014 and 20 July 2015, with the regulator claiming that atleast 32,145 customers were overcharged by £245,900 in total.
Of those 32,145, 26,000 were contacted by EE and subsequently refunded, though around 6,000 could not be traced. Ofcom says this 19% who could not be traced was also EE’s fault, stating that they did ‘not preserve detailed billing records, warn customers, or notify promptly Tüv Süv BABT.’
After making it free to call 150 from abroad, a second incident of overcharging, caused by the same issue affected 7,674 customers between 18 November 2015 and 11 January 2016, costing customers £2,203.33, though this was refunded immediately, with EE referencing improvements made to their systems after the first incident as helping them to quickly identify and fix the issue.
Refering to the first incident, Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s consumer group director, said: “EE didn’t take enough care to ensure that its customers were billed accurately. This ended up costing customers thousands of pounds, which is completely unacceptable.
‘We monitor how phone companies bill their customers, and will not tolerate careless mistakes. Any company that breaks Ofcom’s rules should expect similar consequences.’
Controversially, until Ofcom intervened, the regulator claims EE had not set out to reimburse the majority of those affected through the first error – wrongly deciding it couldn’t identify whom it overcharged and instead suggesting a charitable donation of the same value. However, EE contestests this claim.
In addition to the fine, Ofcom is requiring EE to make further attempts to trace and refund the lost 6,000. EE says the missing customers relate to ex customers and have anounced a freefone line for them to contact the network, while also currently sending out letters to the last known addresses of those impacted but not yet compensated.
A statement from EE in response to the fine reads, ‘We accept these findings and apologise unreservedly to those customers affected by these technical billing issues between 2014 & 2015. We have put measures in place to prevent this from happening again, and have contacted the majority of customers to apologise and provide a full refund. For those customers that we could not identify, we donated the remaining excess fees to charitable causes in line with Ofcom’s guidelines.’
‘Providing the best network experience and best customer service for EE customers in store, online and over the phone through our UK and Ireland-based centres are our top priorities. Following Ofcom’s findings, we have made a number of additional improvements to our systems and policies to allow us to better support our customers in the rare occasion that billing issues do occur.’
Commenting on the announcement, Mobile Choice Magazine editor Sunetra Chakravarti said, ‘To be fined twice in eighteen months doesn't evoke customer confidence. EE have apologised to customers and promised to provide a refund but OFCOM say they didn't do so until the telecoms regulator intervened.This issue affected 40,000 customers because of the lack of financial checks and balances- an issue that could have been easily addressed internally.
‘I am particularly worried that EE still haven't managed to identify all the customers affected by this major billing mistake. A consumer doesn't usually ring customer services for a chit-chat. It is to discuss their phone plan, and to over-charge these customers an average £9.42 for that is just not right. I would be furious if it was me.’
This is the second billing fine handed out by Ofcom in six months, with Vodafone hit with a £4.6 million fine in October 2016 for what Ofcom described as ‘a serious and sustained breach of consumer protection rules.’ EE was also fined £1 million in July 2015 for complaints handling failures.
We’re now in the process of sending letters to their last known addresses, and have set up a Freefone line for non-EE customers to contact us. All current EE customers who were affected have already been refunded or will receive their refund this week (only a very small amount in the latter case)