Complaints about broadband contracts rise by more than a third in 12 months
The number of consumer complaints about broadband and mobile contracts has soared by nearly 40% in the past year.
Ombudsman Services: Communications received 2,636 more complaints about 'contract issues' between January and November this year than it did in the whole of 2014 – a rise of 38.9%.
The watchdog, which covers the telecoms, energy, property and copyright licensing industries, received a total of 75,411 communications complaints from 1 January to 1 November 2015.
9,412 of these were about ‘contract issues’, which can cover anything from disputes about contract length to contested terms and conditions such as early termination fees, and changes to terms during a contract.
This compares to 6,776 complaints about contract issues in the whole of 2014.
Cable.co.uk has reported on a variety of these issues, where consumers have been caught out by clauses or small print in their contract – often incurring extra charges.
But Katherine Niccol, a solicitor at law firm Slater and Gordon, said consumers' biggest weapon against unexpected contract charges is vigilance.
"You enter a contract, you're told how much you're going to pay each month, you're told that there's maybe a cap on your data, you're told that if you're late paying your bill there may be a charge," she said.
"Providers aren't charities – they're going to want to make money somehow and they do it by sucking you in a bit."
The onus is on the consumer to fully check the terms and conditions of their contract, she said, since nobody is forcing them to sign.
"The key is to be vigilant and to read the contract. I know that none of us do, we're all guilty of it, but they (the terms) aren't really hidden."
Earlier this year, single mum Viktoria Cole, from Chippenham, Wiltshire, was hit with a bill of more than £1,000 by Vodafone after her daughter unwittingly soared above her mobile data allowance on a tablet.
The 31-year-old admitted it was her responsibility to check that her daughter wasn’t using the mobile data allowance, but thought the provider should have done more to alert her to the imminent huge bill.
“I would have thought at some point I would have had a courtesy call warning me that my bill was so high," she said.
Cable.co.uk has previously reported that EE customers were being hit by unexpected charges after unwittingly subscribing to a premium rate service.
Many customers discovered charges of around £4 a week to a company called either Mobitrans or Mobile Academy on their mobile bills, despite not realising that they had signed up.
They included Jamie McCormick, 36, an assistant site manager from Edgware, London, whose started being charged in April but didn't notice until June.
Mr McCormick was told that he had subscribed to the service but managed to get a refund after repeatedly contacting Mobitrans themselves.
Figures obtained from Ombudsman Services show that in January 2014 'contract issues' made up 7.9% of total communications complaints, rising to 10.5% by December 2014.
By November this year that had further risen to 13.4% – making up 1,143 complaints out of the total 8,540 for the month.
The Consumer Rights Act 2015, which came into force in October, included changes that affect broadband and mobile providers, including the requirement for key terms to be shown prominently and transparently, giving consumers recourse against providers who try to hide fees or charges.
It also includes an unfair terms test, which can be used to challenge terms like charges that can be deemed excessive or disproportionate, as well as a requirement that a provider must deliver a service within a reasonable period of time and should offer a refund if they can't.
But Ms Niccol said that while the new act includes more guidance on what can be seen as unfair, it has the same general principles.
She said people do have recourse if they receive thousands of pounds of unexpected charges but the best thing they can do is be vigilant when entering into contracts.
Consumers should make sure they shop around and ask all the necessary questions about charges and extras before they sign a contract, said Ms Niccol.
People should be wary when travelling abroad, using in-app purchases, and when finding their contract in the first place, as it is no use if they find a better deal after signing.
"Learn to use your devices, a lot of providers now send a text before you go or when you arrive in the country," Ms Niccol said.
"With in-app purchases, suppliers aren't charities so they are going to want to charge for things and they're usually going to want to charge for the juicy bits.
"Don't click on anything if you're not sure, learn how to use your device, shop around and make a decision vigilantly."
If some charges look "wildly excessive" a complaint could be warranted, but she said consumers should ask the right questions before they sign.
"Never be afraid of asking about money or charges - if it's free for six months ask what's going to happen after that. Be aware of notice periods.
"Never be afraid of asking the questions, but do it before you have signed."
Ombudsman Services is one of two alternative dispute resolution schemes in the UK that deal with telecoms service providers, along with the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme. All communications providers must belong to one of these schemes.
Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, looks at how issues affect UK consumers as a whole, but does not investigate individual complaints.
It gives advice for people when signing up to broadband and mobile contracts, including checking the 'core subscription price', potential price increases, usage allowances, extra costs, what happens if there is a problem, and any early exit charges.
Additional reporting by Phil Wilkinson-Jones
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