T-Mobile UK Overcharges 4% of Customers

UK operator T-Mobile has blamed a billing system ‘glitch’ for wrongly levying call forward charges on free voicemail calls; read the BBC’s version of the story here. The error was found by consumer activist website Bitter Wallet. Treat this as yet more proof that the internet age has given razor-sharp consumers the power to break the news that corporate dimwits would rather hush up. T-Mobile came up with the usual blah blah drivel to excuse themselves…

We know that a minority of our customers have incurred small but unexpected additional charges to their accounts in recent weeks. This error is the result of a glitch in our billing systems which meant that some T-Mobile customers wrongly received call forwarding charges when they used their voicemail. This charge was on average 26p, although it varies depending on the individual’s price plan.

This problem has now been fixed. We’ll be fully refunding every customer affected by this, a process which has already begun. We’re really sorry and wholeheartedly apologise to any customers who have been affected by this issue.

System glitch? My arse. A human being made a mistake and other human beings failed to implement the controls needed to stop mistakes before they happen. Wholeheartedly apologise to any customers affected? My arse. I looked at their website and I cannot see an apology there. My guess is that they are wholeheartedly sorry and more than a little annoyed that some customers are smart enough to check their bills. For everybody else, their policy will be to pretend that nothing happened.

The BBC story illustrates another important point about protecting phone customers in the UK. Did you see how the BBC’s journalist wrote about the UK regulation which prevents telco customers from being overbilled? Me neither. A few guys with an activist website are better at delivering bill accuracy then a load of auditor goons too busy drinking tea and filing paperwork to ever check an actual bill. According to Ofcom, the UK regulator, their billing protection scheme

aims to enhance end-user confidence in the accuracy of charges from Communications Providers, by the testing and certification of the systems and processes involved in creating those charges and generating bills and prepay debits.

Newsflash to Ofcom: nobody has heard of your scheme, it does not work, and it does not ‘enhance end-user confidence’ because nobody has heard of your scheme and it does not work and real people find real errors all the time. ‘Testing and certification of systems and processes’ – you have to assume that is meant to cover billing system glitches. To illustrate how pointless the scheme is, wade through the rules (if you dare) and you will see the audits are meant to guarantee that customer bills will never be overcharged by more than 1 penny for every 500 pounds of services supplied. Some simple maths: 26p error * 4% of customers * an error rate of 1:50000 = T-Mobile UK did not break the scheme rules only if the average customer spends GBP520 a year. Newsflash to T-Mobile UK’s regulatory auditors: the average T-Mobile UK customer spends less than GBP520 a year. But save yourself the bother of scanning the news for the penalties that Ofcom will hand out. Just as it suits T-Mobile UK to say as little as possible when they overcharge customers, it suits Ofcom to keep quiet about the failings of their regulations. In summary: overcharging leads to red faces all around, ‘consumer protection’ schemes involve saying nothing and achieving even less, and the only real consumer protection comes from consumers checking their bills.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.