Ask Sindie: 'Please press 0870 if you want to get a big phone bill'

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Q: After a recent break-in, I rang the DVLA in Swansea to replace my stolen driving licence.

It took a few separate calls as I didn't have the right pieces of identification, and each time I had to navigate a "press-1-if-you-want-to ..." recorded message system. That said, the customer services team were great.

When my telephone bill arrived, however, I found that the enquiries had cost nearly £3.

It's not a huge sum on its own, but for a few calls to a UK landline, I think it's outrageous.

Why does it cost so much? I've written to complain and am thinking about refusing to pay this part of my phone bill.

NS, Cheshire

A: Your displeasure is shared by many others. Not least Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, which recently ordered a shake-up of 0870 numbers.

As you've discovered, the calls are expensive, costing as much as 8p a minute from a landline at peak time, against just 3p if you were to ring the same company on an 01 or 02 phone number.

According to research by consumer body Which?, the cost of calling an 0870 number in the daytime is 7.5p a minute with BT or 8p with cable provider NTL/Telewest.

And the price really hits home when you're left holding on the line, or navigating your way through a forest of options to reach a particular department.

Companies and organisations like to use these numbers because they share the "per minute" revenue from the cost of the call with the telecoms provider. They get nothing from using regular 01 and 02 landline numbers.

The DVLA isn't the only body keen on 0870. Others include local authority helplines and travel services, and government public enquiry lines like those for the Department for Education and Skills.

Businesses using 0870 numbers include banks and credit card companies.

Ofcom wants to call time on revenue sharing. In an industry consultation, which ends on 6 December, it has proposed that 0870 calls should in the future follow the normal national pricing model, where call costs are based on geographic location.

For now, it has decreed that 0870 charges won't rise any further.

If you come across any of these numbers in the near future, try visiting www.saynoto0870.com. This website suggests ways to get around the cost, usually by ringing a company's normal landline number and asking for a particular department instead.

For now, refusing to pay your bill would be a bad move. Although your complaint concerns the DVLA, withholding payment means you'll break your contract with your landline phone company. Better to pay up and be well prepared in the future.

Q: For some time, I've been keen to invest money in one of the new real estate investment trusts [Reits] promised by the Government. There was a mention in the 2004 Budget and this year's too, but since then I've heard nothing about when they will be launched. Can you help with any information, or am I wasting my time?

OT, Liverpool

A: Reits remain a work in progress. The investment industry is still labouring on details for their structure and tax relief.

For the uninitiated, a Reit is a property fund that will give individuals the chance to invest in commercial and residential developments. Instead of having to shell out huge sums for a stake in the properties - as they do now - investors will be allowed to buy small, affordable shareholdings.

There will also be a tax advantage, as Reits will be able to trade property assets without paying corporation tax.

The trusts are already popular in other countries, including Australia and the US, but their arrival here has been held up by two issues. First, there's the cost that the Government is likely to impose on companies that want to convert to the new Reit structure. Second, the amount that Reits will be able to borrow for investment has yet to be decided.

It was stated in the Budget that the Treasury aimed to legislate for Reits in 2006 - and a spokesman says this "is still the current position". An update - no more - should come in the pre-Budget report on Monday 5 December.

If you need help from our consumer champion, write to Sindie at The Independent on Sunday, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email sindie@independent.co.uk. We cannot return documents, give personal replies or guarantee to answer letters. We accept no legal responsibility for advice given.

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