How to pay as little as possible for phone calls

Certain numbers can cost you a small fortune, but there are alternatives, says James Daley

Calling your own bank or utility provider can be extremely expensive these days. Over the past few years, the introduction of 0845, 0870, 0871, 0844 numbers – and even premium-rate numbers beginning 09 – have become commonplace for consumers calling helplines or customer service centres.

The 08 national numbers were first introduced in the early 1990s as a means of allowing companies and other organisations to keep the same telephone number, even if they moved offices. Ultimately, however, they cost consumers the same amount as calling a local or national number.

But over the past few years, companies have begun to wake up to the potential of using their phone lines as an extra source of income, establishing revenue-sharing agreements with phone operators which allow them to make a few pence each time a customer calls. For the very largest organisations, this can provide a considerable boost to their bottom line.

While most don't publicise just how much they make off their customer calls, research by the consumer group Which? revealed that several government departments are making seven-figure sums from their phone lines every year. In 2006, for example, the DVLA made almost £2.5m from its 0870 numbers, while even the Department of Work & Pensions raised more than a quarter of a million pounds from callers.

Most 0844, 0845 and 0870 numbers are still not that expensive to call from a landline – often as little as 3p or 5p a minute. The problem, however, is that these numbers are almost always excluded from any free minutes which you are granted by your phone provider. Therefore, while most customers now negotiate a package with their provider, whereby any local or national calls are included in their monthly tariff, they invariably end up paying extra for any calls to their bank, energy provider or broadband supplier.

If you're calling from a mobile phone, the story's even worse. Not only are these numbers excluded from your free minutes, but they are often charged at as much as 50p a minute. Even so-called "freephone" 0800 numbers, which are free from any landline, can cost you as much as 20p a minute when called from your mobile.

The good news is that the additional costs of calling 08 numbers are nearly always avoidable. While they try not to publicise them, almost all companies have a regular phone number you can call instead of calling their 08 number – allowing you to make full use of the free minutes that you've already paid your phone provider for.

A quick way of finding these equivalent numbers is to check out the website, www.saynoto0870.com, which gives the regular numbers for hundreds of UK organisations.

Meanwhile, there is some hope that the situation will improve this year, after Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, recently launched a new range of national numbers, beginning 03. These will be charged at just a few pence a minute and, crucially, will qualify for use within consumers' already paid-for free minutes.

So far, only a handful of organisations have switched away from their 08 numbers to 03 numbers – but Ofcom hopes more will follow suit over the coming year.

For those who insist on keeping 0870 numbers, Ofcom is also on the case. "We've asked companies to bring the cost of 0870 numbers down to no more than calling a geographic number," says a spokesman. "If they don't go down that route, they must at least put a free pre-announcement on the call to say how much it is costing per minute."

These proposals were due to come into force next month, but have been delayed because several panic alarm services still use 0870 numbers and charge more than the regular national rate for their calls. A pre-recorded message on these services would defeat their purpose, so the regulator has agreed to delay the plans for a couple of months while this anomaly is straightened out.

Although these proposals are a step in the right direction, Which? says it plans to continue lobbying to ensure all companies stop using revenue-sharing numbers for everyday services.

"In the short term, we think that for essential services – such as customer support or helplines – companies shouldn't be using revenue-sharing numbers – or should at least offer customers a geographical alternative," says Ceri Stanaway, a principal researcher for the consumer group. "In the longer term, we hope that companies will move over to the new 03 numbers, which are included in consumers' free minutes."

The other rip-off to watch out for when picking up your phone is premium-rate lines, which begin 09. According to the comparison site Uswitch.com, broadband providers such as Orange, Toucan, Tiscali and Tesco will charge you 50p a minute for calling their technical support line from your landline, and much more if you call them from your mobile.

The best way of voicing your disgust at these pricey calls is to switch to someone else. Many broadband providers no longer charge premium rates for technical support – so check before you sign up. Websites such as Uswitch.com and Broadbandchoices.co.uk can help you find the best deal for you.

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